BAM: House Divided, Experimental Hi-Tech Design Puts Form Before Function.

Inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, House/Divided is an experimental, multi-media theater piece that features video projections, documentary clips, live acting and a moving set. When a play defies the conventional by diving into the digital realm, it is easy to get lost in the limitless opportunities for innovation. House/Divided attempts to multitask with the chaos of technology. It puts form before function, a sacrifice that is somewhat foolish, especially since the subject matter, foreclosures and repossessions in Ohio, is already complicated in nature.

Rather than a narrative play that has a linear storyline with the rising action, climax, and falling action, House/Divided is more of a collage. The scene transitions, although not fluidly, between the present and the past, between metropolis and farmland. The starkness of the transitions gives off the notion that the playwright intended for the audience to observe different facets of the issue without following a focused, solid storyline. Although the breadth of technology used is quite remarkable, each feature seems to compete for the viewers’ attention as the Times Square advertisements do. The ‘live’ tickers, the webcam projections, the banker (Jess Barbagallo) on the side making phone calls, and the repeating background music adds to the high-tech experience, but it is rather overwhelming.  At one point, a projection of Alan Greenspan appeared, while an overlapping projection of a ticker quickly infiltrated the set with a rising sea of negative, red numbers signifying the major decreases in the stock market. It was a clever representation, but the underlying messages are politically charged, almost resembling propaganda. The problem with using technology is that glitches are more likely to happen. About halfway into the play, a part of a documentary clip was repeated. The superfluous use of technology in the banking scenes really only served the singular purpose of communicating that the debt crisis is, in itself, confusing, forceful and ubiquitous.

Amidst the serious subject matter, the script does include some humor through caricatures of bankers that make myriads of mortgage-related phone calls in a short amount of time and mockeries of automated recordings. The script incorporates some scenes of comedic relief that bring up economic annoyances that most people in the audience can relate to.

The “high-tech” quality of the play is much more emotionally powerful during the rural Ohio scenes than in the bank setting. While the acting and the set of the bank scenes appear fast-paced, machine-like, cold and opportunistic, we see the humanistic presence of rural Ohio. An image of a home with white shingles and many windows is projected onto the main, boxy structure of the set, giving the illusion that it is three-dimensional. Here, the use of technology seems more effective because the panels of the structure are translucent, allowing the viewer to see a cutaway with actors inside.  The first rural scenes look tranquil and beautiful, as nostalgic images of tall grass sweeping before the sunset are projected onto the panels—effective images that conjures the pathos. Further into the play, the tone becomes desolate and hopeless when the house is foreclosed. The panels are moved around by the repossession men, making the empty structure seem more like a house than a home, at this point.

Although we get a cutaway view into the house, it is almost futile since the panels are not transparent enough to see the facial expressions of the actors. Furthermore, the character voices telling their anecdotes is just as unsuccessful; the highly artificial Midwestern accents were more of a distraction than a set of believable monologues. Despite the unrehearsed accents, the narrator’s grave, whispery voice was at least an appropriate fit for the poetic narrations that supplemented the scene of the house on the verge of foreclosure. One chilling banjo (or ovation guitar) cover of Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend” arose from the shadows, and marked the beginning of the foreclosure. The deep, resonating strumming of the ballad created a poignant moment that is difficult to forget.

The play’s message would have been more successful if it did not go to the extremes to illustrate the debt crisis, but instead exhibited arguments from both sides. A clear focus and a simple design are the two things that a theater company must consider, especially when taking on the challenge of an experimental-digital medium.

House Divided played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from October 24, 2012 through October 27, 2012. For current and future productions at BAM, please visit

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