The American Dream—In a Shopping Mall

En Garde Arts‘s latest work, “Harbored,” tells the tale of immigration and the American Dream a stone’s throw from the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Photo courtesy of Maria Baranova

Where better to stage a play about the American Dream—with its inspirational prosperity and its ugly consumerism—than in one of our country’s most potent, for better or worse, symbols: a shopping mall. This weekend, Harbored takes over the airy, gleaming Winter Garden atrium of Brookfield Place to tell stories of immigration and the American West.

Part of this year’s River to River Festival, the play is appropriate not just for its setting amid the Lululemon, Michael Kors, and J.Crew shops. The Winter Garden also has an expansive view of the New York Harbor. Anne Hamburger, founder and artistic director of En Garde Arts (the theater company behind the show), says, “With the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island just a stone’s throw away and the new World Trade Center across the street, the symbolism of this space brought home to me the foundational ideals upon which this country was built: a sanctuary for those fleeing from persecution, poverty, and war, and a land that held the promise of a better life. In a time where fear of the ‘other’ is at an all-time high, it seemed only fitting to take on the topic of the American Dream.”

Photo courtesy of Maria Baranova

The hour-long performance does an impressive job of taking on those topics by following the stories of three people: a documentarian who is researching Annie Moore, the first immigrant to come through Ellis Island; the son of an American veteran who explores the Rockies with his boyfriend while dreaming about the expeditions of Lewis and Clark; and Willa Cather and the real-life relationship she had with the woman who inspired her novel My Ántonia, about immigrants in Nebraska.

These tales are interwoven dynamically, with actors moving across the atrium floor on industrial rolling ladders, and a troupe of simply dressed dancers adding emotive movement and scenery, embodying the waves of the sea, for example, with the help of a long piece of fabric. Real-life voices and recorded stories of immigration from audience members (who are invited to share their own stories from noon to 2 p.m. in the atrium on performance days) are incorporated into the piece.

As the narratives move along, the audience is gradually escorted across the atrium and up a grand staircase, where they can then sit and watch more action unfold on the landing below. Then, at the end of the performance, the audience is ushered back down the staircase, streaming in a mass—reminiscent of the “huddled masses” from Emma Lazarus’s poem, which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty—toward the glowing sunset over the Hudson River, as the music swells. That moment was so compelling, many of us teared up. Whatever greed and excess the shopping mall setting may have evoked, it was overshadowed by the hope, grit, and passion of the people who have made their way to our shores.

Why You Should Go: Seeing the sunset over the Hudson River while moving across this enormous atrium in a crowd of people—à la immigrants pouring into Ellis Island—makes this a poignant, thought-provoking theater experience.

Brookfield Place
230 Vesey Street (at West Street), The Battery
Through Sunday, June 25
Friday and Sunday, 7 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m.