Rady & Bloom’s The Upper Room, now playing at the New Ohio Theatre, is described as a unique music-theatrical event inspired by the back-to-the-land movement that explores spirituality and environmental issues. While that is an accurate description of what the show is, it doesn’t really prepare an audience member for the experience of seeing The Upper Room. I will say upfront that this is a show for a very specific audience, an audience that is well-versed in religious texts and their common themes of resurrection, the level of adherence to or flexibility with ancient laws, and physical transformation through faith. I was able to follow the story and themes throughout, but my plus-one for the night was utterly lost and confused for the entire 80 minutes. While I took a lot away from the experience, I will advise that your mileage with The Upper Room may vary.
The show opens on a back-to-the-land commune living on an island off the coast of Maine. All the characters are crunchy-granola hippies who are obsessed with farming methods, the proper order and schedule of planting fruits and vegetables, and maintaining community harmony through being of one mind in almost everything. The way that they lay out their routine and rules of the community reminded me of the Old Testament laws about unclean animals, the specifics about how to offer sacrifices, and other various rules like not wearing clothing woven with two kinds of fabrics. There isn’t any explanation for the commune’s arbitrary rules, like parsnips, leeks, and squash are acceptable, but they never plant potatoes. They cite an ultra-orthodox Jainist who poured water through cloth before boiling it so he could rescue any microorganisms in the water. None of these practices are really discussed or debated, but rather, they are obeyed with a religious devotion.
The two inciting incidents that start to shake up the commune are the disappearance (and presumed death) of Hannah (Catherine Brookman), one of their members, and the rapid erosion of the island’s coast. While it isn’t a perfect metaphor, Hannah becomes a sort of Christ figure for the group. The title The Upper Room can be interpreted as a reference to the “upper room” where Jesus Christ had the Last Supper with his disciples, and it is also where the belief of transubstantiation (bread being Christ’s body, wine being Christ’s blood) comes from. This theory is also supported by the table constantly being central to the action of the show.
Throughout the play, people question whether Hannah is really dead, and after the “Excellent Divers” song, Sue claims she heard Hannah singing and saw her swimming in the ocean. Again, Sue seeing Hannah but not being believed by her two companions, Lena and Eileen, can be interpreted as a retelling of Mary Magdalene seeing Christ after the resurrection according to the Book of John. She shares what she saw and heard, which she calls “the majesty of heaven and the boundless of holy forgiveness,” but she isn’t believed.
Much of the dialogue about the island’s erosion is also very much steeped in Christian imagery and metaphors, claiming that their home and its foundation is sacred. Philipa says, “Our father blessed this rock we’re on here.” Their obsession with farming and taking care of the land ties back to the island being holy, so when the earth starts crumbling into the ocean and leaving their community at risk of drowning, it shakes their collective faith to the core. They fight amongst themselves. Some of them cling to their rules and beliefs even tighter while others consider abandoning their beliefs altogether. The commune is fractured until the reappearance of Hannah, who reveals her own physical transformation and shows them the path to their own salvation. Their future isn’t in clinging to the past or abandoning their beliefs but something they couldn’t have possibly imagined.
There is so much else that could be discussed about The Upper Room, but for all of its ideas and religious parallels, is it a good show? Well, the show spends so much time setting up these analogies that the characters aren’t fully developed, and if you get really irritated by the characters in Portlandia, most of the characters in The Upper Room will drive you nuts. I don’t think they are necessarily supposed to be sympathetic, so this wasn’t a problem for me, but for my plus-one, this was a huge problem. He had trouble connecting with any character, and since he didn’t have the same religious background to put these analogies together, the show didn’t have much to offer him.
Despite his problems with the show, we managed to find three things that we both admired about the production. First, the music. Catherine Brookman, who plays Hannah, composed the show’s music, and it is really beautiful. Lyrically and stylistically, it reminded me of more traditional folk gospel songs, like Doc Watson’s “Down in the Valley to Pray” or “I’ll Fly Away.” If the show put out a cast recording of the songs, I would very likely buy it. Second, the characters might be thinly written and somewhat unlikeable, but the cast really brings life, personality, and humor to their roles. Brookman is the stand-out because of her singing voice, but everyone is clearly talented. Finally, the set design is imaginative and versatile with the table transforming from a meeting place to the full moon to a cliffside where a character dives into the ocean. An overhead projector is also used to great comedic and artistic effect.
Whether all these elements are enough to keep someone engaged for 80 minutes will really depend on the audience member. For myself, The Upper Room is a fascinating dissection of religious dogma. For my plus-one, however, his understanding of the show was like listening to that teacher from Charlie Brown, and while he appreciated some of the individual parts, The Upper Room didn’t mean all that much to him.
Rady & Bloom’s The Upper Room opened May 28 and will run through June 12 at the New Ohio Theatre, located at 154 Christopher Street. Tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for students and seniors, and available by phone at 1-888-596-1027 or online here.
May 28 at 8:00 PM
May 29 at 8:00 PM
May 30 at 8:00 PM
June 2 at 8:00 PM
June 3 at 8:00 PM
June 4 at 8:00 PM
June 5 at 8:00 PM
June 6 at 8:00 PM
June 9 at 8:00 PM
June 10 at 8:00 PM
June 11 at 8:00 PM
June 12 at 8:00 PM
Directions to the New Ohio Theatre: