"Are we not drawn onward to new erA" Encourages Understanding the Climate Crisis From an Unconventional Perspective
A few people quietly left the UMS presentation of Are we not drawn onward to new erA mid-performance while many others stayed and took part in a spirited standing ovation.
Conceived and performed by Belgian theater collective Ontroerend Goed, it’s just one of those shows: an experimental, challenging piece of theatrical performance art that you either embrace or reject.
And your reaction likely depended on your capacity for patience and ambiguity, which was initially tested when deciding whether or not to purchase a ticket for the January 20 or January 21 performance.
By way of a vague show description, the UMS site reads, “You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube. You can’t remake a shattered vase. Or undo the damage that humans have inflicted on the Earth. But what if you could—in just one night?” (When asking my husband if he wanted to accompany me to the show, he asked, “What is it about?” “Uh … repair, I guess?” He didn’t come.)
Now, there’s of course a good reason for this artful obfuscation, but you have to be willing to step into the unknown, which is at the heart of UMS’ envelope-pushing No Safety Net event series.
When the lights come up on Are we not drawn onward to new erA—the title is, significantly, a palindrome—you see a tree with a single apple, and on another part of the stage, a woman lying on the floor with her back to the audience.
As a man enters, plucks off the apple, and offers it to the woman, and the two share a slow, warm embrace, our brains feverishly work to fill in blanks: tree of knowledge, right? This is a clothed, contemporary Adam and Eve we’re seeing, yes?
Not really. Maybe sort of.
But then a silver balloon, followed by a man wearing shorts, enters the scene from beneath a curtain, soon followed by the appearance of three other actors on the stage. Another man starts whittling the tree down to nothing, branch by branch, and after observing the strangeness of the actors’ movements, and listening to the piece’s seemingly foreign, strange, and sparse lines of dialogue, I soon deduced what was happening in front of me.
I won’t give this insight away, nor will I say that my conclusion marked an endpoint of interest—because even becoming aware of the game that was afoot then left me with the next logical question: “How on earth …?”
For the destruction of the tree is followed by set pieces involving a sea of brightly colored plastic bags floating down from above, and a statue being pulled down and sawed into pieces, and the air being filled with smoke.
In that first half hour, you’re either intrigued enough to stay, or you grab your coat and head up the aisle.
For me, the baffling build-up, while frustrating at times, was generally worth the wait. The meticulous, painstaking effort that went into executing the show’s central conceit is kind of astounding, and it’s something I’ve never seen attempted on stage before. That alone made it worth a blind leap of faith.
But to reap the rewards of an atmospheric, experimental show like Are we not drawn onward to new erA, you have to let go of conventional expectations and demands. That seems like an important and beneficial practice for us, but it grows more and more difficult with each distraction-packed day.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.