Count on the Oakland Theater Project to stage innovative and thought-provoking experiences. What other companies would produce Lisa Ramirez’s brilliant performance of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in a parking lot, or a dramatic adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Sand? We expect nothing less from this small, out-of-the-way company, and it’s worth the effort.
Exodus to Eden, Oakland Theater Project, through Feb. 26
With that in mind, OTP is now presenting the surreal, ambitious-yet-perplexing world premiere of Exodus to Eden, written and directed by its executive director, Michael Socrates Moran. It’s a rather lengthy (two-and-a-half hours, plus an intermission) dramatic and emotional imagining of a post-apocalyptic group of unhoused Oaklanders who are trudging from California to Oklahoma to escape the effects of a horrendous climate catastrophe. In sum, it’s acknowledged as a sort of The Grapes of Wrath in reverse, with a nod to the biblical story of Exodus and a touch of Angels in America thrown in.
One of the 17 talented actors is young, pregnant Miriam (the excellent Arielle Powell), who is searching for her estranged family. Perhaps named after the biblical Miriam (the sister of Moses and Aaron), she gives life and inspiration to the wanderers who trek through the desert in search of a better land. But she is hounded by The Man (Adam KuveNiemann), an evil corporate type who wants to take her child. This personification of modern maliciousness with an accompanying malevolent, gun-toting angel haunts the sufferers throughout their journey.
A benevolent winged angel also follows the troupe, mutely carrying a tree that perhaps symbolizes life. Through our glimpses of the nomads’ emotional life stories, it seems that many of the migrants have lost their children, but nothing is actually spelled out in this abstract drama. We must use our imagination and knowledge of biblical and literary allusions to piece together all the elements.
The group of actors sings 25 songs during the performance. They are unaccompanied by musical instruments, and some pieces add poignancy. They certainly form a contrast to the rest of the play. But 25 chants seem excessive, especially since they added to the length of the drama without contributing much substance, nor did they advance the plot.
When a theater company veers into the challenging domain of surreal creativity, its production may be too conceptual for those audiences who want to walk out of a theater laughing or whistling a tune. So, Exodus to Eden is not for everybody. But it is replete with big ideas and literary references — so many that one might want to read the play and/or see it more than once to understand it fully.
Exodus to Eden plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday (except for 2 p.m. Sunday matinees on Feb. 12, 19, and 26) through Feb. 26, 2023, at The Flax Building, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland. Tickets are $10–$55. All attendees must wear masks. Tickets are available on the Oakland Theater Project website or by calling 510-646-1126.