House (And Opinions)/ Divided

The stage was set. The economy was booming, propelled by the housing market. Juxtaposed throughout the performance was the famous Steinbeck work Grapes of Wrath. Home owners and stock traders shared good fortune. But as the music portrayed, there was something churning and developing under the surface of this commentary on the economic decline, House/ Divided.

The theater piece starts off with the hustle and bustle of an average day of the New York Stock Exchange. As traders inquire to the profitability of purchasing new stocks, and others try to convince them that they are “as safe as houses”, the ironic turn of events begins to take place.

This performance takes place on one stage, with a house as the centerpiece. This house revolved, rotated, broke apart, and did much else to supplement a wonderful performance by the actors.  On the wall behind the house, stock prices could be seen moving from right to left, showing a lot of green to indicate beneficial stock markets.  Throughout the performance, music depicted the mood of the characters. In the beginning, the fast paced music almost made it seem as if the audience was in a jungle (and why not? The stock market is one of the darkest, densest jungles there are).  The music (mostly automated but some live) changed as the scene transitioned from that of a busy trading floor to that of the prairie, where Steinbeck’s characters are accompanied by much older, non- machine made music. However, director Marianne Weems and writer Moe Angelos did a great job in preserving the theme of displaced people.

This performance also mixes in many interviews of actual home owners in Columbus, Ohio (chosen because Ohio is a swing state and was effected deeply by the housing crisis) who had lost their homes due to the economic meltdown. This was a great addition and gave a deep insight into the magnitude and reality of the situation. Another aspect of the performance that conveyed reality was the crude language used by the two stockbrokers. Their words were filled with sarcasm, disdain, and a lack of emotion or empathy. This is the image that stockbrokers of today that is widely accepted by both the media and the public.

As soon as the economic downturn hit, the music changed to the type one would see in a movie when someone is breaking out of jail. The house, an image of the American Dream, begins to be disassembled, as chaos ensues in the finance offices. The president of Bear Sterns comes on to the main screen, reassuring investors that everything will be fine, and the recovery will occur promptly. To an audience in 2012, this is almost comical, as it is clear that what was predicted did not happen and these business leaders took completely wrong steps in trying to turn the direction of their companies. This performance was a commentary not only on the tragedy for homeowners, but also the ineptness of loan officers, giving loans to people that clearly could not afford to pay any of them back. As the stock market plummeted, the setting changed to the farms of Oklahoma, in which the families have been kicked off their farms, having to move to California in order to pick fruit. The juxtaposition of these two problems is also quite interesting because in the old days, people would simply move to places where there were better opportunities, but now there is such a high demand for jobs that at some points, there are just not enough jobs to sustain economic growth. Another interesting comparison between the two time periods is that in Steinbeck’s time, there was no such thing as a big bank who’s failure could set off a chain reaction to effect the national economy. However, economies today have become so complex and inter- connected that one fallout can cause a much greater reaction.

The play’s strongest message was sent in the end, as an actor portraying Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve accused of over deregulating the market to the point where it was taken advantage of and the decline began. With Greenspan’s refusal to admit his mistakes and eventual acceptance, the stock strip in the back of the stage began to flicker green, signaling recovery. Once again, Steinbeck’s characters were brought back to signal a similar emotion of hope and resilience. Both stories will hopefully have a positive end.


“You Blew It”

Lucky enough to stay after for the question and answer session, something I heard blew my mind. “You blew it.” An elderly woman got up to ask a question, but instead went on to destroy the performance. She said that “the music was abominable” and she was not “emotionally stirred”. Everyone was shocked by this sudden rudeness, and the director was no exception. “You go write your own play,” said Marianne Weems angrily. This woman, though entitled to her opinions, needed to do a better job of conveying her criticism, and this part of the night was the only subpar one for me.


Credit: Jay LaPrete

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