A Red Orchid Theatre bills “American Bottom” as an “experimental audiobook,” but that's neither entirely accurate nor adequate.
Written almost entirely in verse and divided into 24 titled chapters, the 90-minute piece is available virtually for listening or as a YouTube video with visuals, too. They include photographs and lots of line drawings and other artwork by Rich Sparks, one of the six people credited with collectively conceiving the show. The others are text author Brett Neveu, director and sound designer Neil Verma, composer Matthew Muñiz, Foley designer Ele Matelan and digital art editor/indigenous consultant Frankie Pedersen.
It also helps to know in advance (in case you don't) that “American Bottom” was inspired by the eponymous geographical area of Southern Illinois, a 175-square-mile flood plain that was the center of the pre-Columbian Cahokia Mounds civilization, and later of the French settlement of Illinois Country. That explains some of the terms that crop up often, such as Cahokia and Kaskaskia, a French town that was destroyed by floods more than once. Reading the Wikipedia article is an easy way to brush up.
Figuring out what “American Bottom” actually is about is another matter. The performance begins with a song that seems to be entitled “Remember” and repeatedly mentions “white truck, gray rabbit, orange hornet,” but what they mean is a mystery. At one point, all three are pictured as automobiles, but there's a literal gray rabbit and orange hornet in another section. The opening chapter, On the Shelf, has a car parking and someone entering what is called the “star house.”
A promotional postcard I got in the mail provided a tiny clue. “Kevin disappeared in rural Illinois near the site of the Cahokia Mounds.” it said. “ 'American Bottom' follows the thoughts of the people who knew him; unearthing the many layers of life and story connected to the place he called home.” Although Kevin isn't mentioned in the early chapters, I assumed this referred to Motherload Kevin (Charlie Herman) listed in the digital program.
Other characters, and the actors voicing them, are listed there, too. They are The Writer (Echaka Agba), The Passenger (Sherman Edwards), The Pastor (Caleb Wayne Fath), First State Trooper (Bernard Gilbert), Narrator (Lawrence Grimm), The Singer (Amanda Raquel Martinez) and Second State Trooper (June Thiele). Illustrations of them appear in the YouTube version when they're talking though, except for the Narrator and Singer, it's sometimes hard to tell who is who.
Neveu's program notes at least illuminated the origins of the project and, in the process, some of the imagery. It all started with a single black-and-white drawing Sparks made of an oddly shaped barn-like house with a star-shape emblazoned on its front that he came across while driving. He showed it to Neveu, saying it might be a story that should be called “American Bottom.”
Inspired by the idea, Neveu decided the story “could be written like a ‘found text epic poem’ which culls together individual tales and images of the American Bottom region, including its small towns, side roads, as well as the center of the area — the ancient indigenous city of Cahokia and its breathtaking earth mounds.” He goes on to say he collaborated with an amazing group of artists, thinkers, and makers to develop and explore all that 'American Bottom' could become (and will yet be) and that the resulting piece “is an experience that holds many mysteries, stories, and dreams.”
While “epic poem” is a bit grandiose, looking at “American Bottom” as a loose and loosely linked collection of stories, impressions and images makes sense, even if parts of it don't. I prefer the YouTube rendition, though the sound effects — some of which are totally baffling in themselves — don't always go with the visuals.
Not surprisingly for this sort of piece, some of the chapters are more evocative than others. The antics of less reputable locals tended to be entertaining; a long interlude about a woman floating over corn left me cold.
In a press release, A Red Orchid artistic director Kirsten Fitzgerald suggests that “American Bottom” is “a living document of sorts” with “iterations to come, be they recorded, live or other.” This is good news, but I hope those iterations offer more clarity of plot and character development.