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'Promise Land' reminds us that humanity is a common denominator

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Since their 2010 debut Ballad of the Pale Fisherman, Transatlantic Love Affair have been adept at creating absorbing theatrical environments with only their performers’ bodies and voices, along with live musical accompaniment. In their new show Promise Land, they trust in that skill as never before.

Promise Land

Guthrie Theater
$9

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The show’s collaboratively devised plot (inspired by the story of Hansel and Gretel) is simple: Sara (Emily Michaels King) and Joseph (Avi Aharoni), two adolescents living in an unspecified European country about a hundred years ago. On the brink of starvation, they’re sent by their parents (Gregory Parks and Emily Madigan) to come to America and send as much money home as they can. A friend (Adelin Phelps) finds a room for them at a boarding house, where Sara helps with chores and Joseph works in a factory run by the house’s owner (Allison Witham).

The immigrants’ journey progresses through a series of subtle extended scenes that showcase the company’s unparalleled facility at conjuring fully realized environments out of thin air, performers rapidly alternating between being props and playing characters. On paper it sounds cheesy (and in less experienced hands, it often is) but the Transatlantic Love Affair company, led by co-directors Diogo Lopes and Isabel Nelson, are so polished that they can create an effect with the smallest sound or movement.

It works so well (and this type of story has been so often told) that analogues for each setting jump to mind. A sequence where Joseph and Sara crash the first-class section of their ocean liner and are sent back to steerage recalls Titanic. The boarding house is Dickensian; we can almost see its worn floors and dark corners. When the siblings step out to spend their first American money, it’s a La La Land of urban delights.

One reason movies come to mind is that by forgoing traditional sets and props, the company’s able to rapidly cut between settings and perspectives in a way that stage performers typically can’t. They demonstrate the power of this approach in the establishing scene, when Sara and Joseph walk among hungry, haunted neighbors somberly marching somewhere, anywhere. Then, they’re transported to their humble house, where it’s time for their family to have a hard talk.

Music is also an integral part of this tale, with cellist Emily Dantuma using looping effects to create both an original score and source effects. The cast sing a few yearning folk songs, not to advance the story but to establish a sense of calling across the water between the motherland and the New World.

It’s a tragically timely week for an immigration tale, and the ghosts of this story are these characters’ presumptive descendants — who might well, a century later, have been among the 63 million who voted to close our ports to people grappling with circumstances similar to those of Sara and Joseph. With Promise Land, Transatlantic Love Affair reminds us that simple humanity is a common denominator across generations, and that America was built on a promise it’s starting to break.