In-Person Theater Returns with Oakland Theater Project’s 'The Waste Land'

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"I will show you fear in a handful of dust," Lisa Ramirez in Oakland Theater Project's The Waste Land. (Carson French)

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust” –T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

A lone figure (Lisa Ramirez) runs in place, etched against a screen projecting a historical montage that begins and ends with a pandemic. As images span the 1918 Spanish Flu to present-day COVID-19, Ramirez’ face is an anguished rictus. She runs at the pace of a person who knows they cannot outrun that which threatens to overtake them. So begins Oakland Theater Project’s adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” staged as a drive-in concept in the parking lot of the Flax art and design building in Oakland, on Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

A polite semi-circle of cars surrounds Ramirez’ modest square of dirt backed by a moss-covered projection screen (designed by Karla Hargrave). Windows are closed, and radios tuned into a micro-transmitted channel. As the April twilight deepens into night, so too does the unease seeping from the screen. A nervy soundscape (created by Elton Bradman) mixes Nevermind with lounge music with radio static. Archival footage compiled by Erin Gilley flashes across the screen: soldiers and protesters, cracked earth and forest fires, police barricades and atom bombs, doctors and politicians.

Lisa Ramirez as poet/prophet/people in front of a projection screen for Oakland Theater Project's 'The Waste Land.' (Carson French)

Ramirez herself appears timeless—outside of time—dressed in a deconstructed black suit and a flat-brimmed black hat (costume design by Regina Evans). There’s a touch of Chaplin’s Tramp about her, and more than a touch of Brechtian rogue. Billed as the poet, the prophet, and the people, Ramirez portrays a legion of seekers with singular focus.

With the possible exception of “Macavity the Mystery Cat,” “The Waste Land” is probably Eliot’s best-known work. A touchstone of Modernist poetry, its 434 lines traverse a dark landscape of everyday cruelties and conflicting perspectives intoned by the voices of multitudes. Packed with references to mythologies and memories, archetypes and anxieties, the poem reads alternately like a crash course in the “classics” and a bitter repudiation of them. Upon first read, it can appear impenetrable—a criticism leveled at Eliot in his own time—and yet the rhythmic inflections built into the lines give it a disconcerting freshness even 99 years after publication.

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Indeed, Oakland Theater Project is not the first to adapt “The Waste Land” for the stage. When Ramirez—who is OTP’s Associate Artistic Director—brought up the idea of performing the poem soon after the March 2020 shutdown, she was herself inspired by actor Fiona Shaw, whose own solo performance of it premiered in 1995. Ramirez also floated the idea of staging it as a drive-in experience. A full year later, this realization of her vision is a study in resourcefulness and outside-the-black-box thinking—qualities that frequently characterize OTP’s imaginative, site-responsive presentations.

Cars arriving at the check-in point for Oakland Theater Project's drive-in experience of 'The Waste Land.' (Nicole Gluckstern)

In order to get approval from Actor’s Equity, OTP had to postpone the production twice in order to be able to meet all required criteria. And while a drive-in experience offers some of the elements of “live-ness” missing from screen-mediated production (notably, a close encounter with a live performer), it still feels like experimentation, not a permanent feature. Especially for a company whose mission is steeped in bridging socio-economic divides and access needs, the requirement to come by car is a big ask. (I, for one, do not drive.) There will be only one live-streamed performance of The Waste Land (April 29), and an on-demand video will be available afterward, through May 20.

Still, looking ahead to the future of live theater, it’s this kind of willingness to ideate alternative modes of production that will enable companies to create multi-platform experiences with multiple entry points for future audiences.

Lisa Ramirez stars in Oakland Theater Project's The Waste Land. (Carson French)

It's this spirit of experimenting that infuses Ramirez’ performance most palpably. Directed by company co-founder Michael Socrates Moran, she slides into and sheds the skins of multiple characters as she circumnavigates the confines of her claustrophobic staging ground. Roaming in the half-light (designed by Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson), she is at turns a poet, a clairvoyant, a humbled fisher king, a nervous lover, a garrulous bartender, a cad, and a weary traveler. She plunges her hands into a pile of soil, chanting of the fear and the dust. As Tiresias, she dons sunglasses and plucks at a mandolin, bathed in a violet light, reminiscing upon a violet hour. Exiled to an arid plain, she stumbles, crouches, and shouts, cursing the dry thunder and longing for rain.

There is (thankfully) little attempt on the part of Literary Manager John Wilkins to reconcile Eliot’s disintegrated vision into a neat narrative arc. In a kaleidoscopic array, each small fragment captures the spotlight for a brief moment before shifting abruptly to the next. The overall effect is not quite poetry and not quite play, but rather a portal into an existential chatter of voices, vying for significance. A voyeuristic peek into the id of an unquiet era. A handful of dust scattered wide.

Oakland Theater Project’s 'The Waste Land' plays through May 16 (livestream performance on April 29). Tickets and info here.