Artistic vision is a tricky thing. It has almost nothing to do with money, or skill, or talent, or anything that you can properly quantify. Like pornography -- to borrow Judge John M. Woolsey’s famous defense of James Joyce’s Ulysses -- you know it when you see it. And where artistic vision might be difficult to get a hold of or define, it’s impossible not to see its transformative effects on everything it touches.
This puts us in a quandary in looking at Ubuntu Theater Project’s production of Frank Galati’s stage adaption of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It is at moments an amazing production, and yet it falters and sputters too many times to be fully successful. It has a vision of the theater and the world that’s admirable and sharp. You feel it build in momentum during the long and involving first act, and lose focus and purpose during the more conventionally dramatic second.
Ubuntu specializes in site-specific performance, and even though the company's production of The Grapes of Wrath isn’t staged on a road or in a farm encampment, there is something about Oakland City Church’s cavernous basement/gymnasium that rings true to the material.
At first the set seems no more than random bits of wood and industrial trashcans that you might find scattered around any busy and overtaxed church. Then some actors wander out and gather around a metal can that emits a warm glow of orange light. You know the scene -- it’s stood for poverty and desolation in countless plays and movies. And yet here in this church, at this time of great economic disparity and disruption, the normally hackneyed visual image becomes compelling.
Off to the side you hear voices singing a hymn. And from a pair of visibly obvious speakers mounted on either end of the stage, there are sound effects -- wind, rain, and a sense of vast emptiness (if the last can be captured in sound). The soundscape lends the production an immediate realism that, when you think about it, isn’t realistic at all. The sounds serve to isolate and focus our attention in subtle, simple, and sophisticated ways.