By Bill Marx
Personable but bracing, Sea Sick delivers an essential message: not only about the damage that is being done to the oceans, but the horrors that are coming down the pike.
Sea Sick, written by and performed by Alanna Mitchell. Directed by Franco Boni with Ravi Jain. At the Emerson Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Boston, through May 22 (in person performances). May 20 at 8 p.m. (Virtual Livestream via Artsemerson.org).
I had been in despair that Boston’s theaters were ignoring the climate crisis. Our stages were unimpressed that, given the dire predictions of scientists and the recalcitrance of governments (at the command of fossil fuel interests), we will be going about the rest of our daily lives knowing that the world we inhabit cannot exist much longer. Apparently, the prospect of mass extinction was not considered to be dramatic enough or of sufficient general interest — perhaps too much of a downer? (If satire closes on Saturday night, tragedy never sees the light of day.)
Boston’s theater critics, snug as bugs in the eternal sunshine of the blurb-filled mind, were not making any demands to the contrary. And, in my darker moments, I thought they might be onto something. Think about it: if climate change is as catastrophic as predicted, will earth’s survivors have the luxury to preserve literature, music, and theater? They will have a lot of other things on their minds, such as finding water, food, and a cool place to live. So our ever upbeat reviewers may have a point: puff musicals and escapist entertainments while ye may.
But a trio of recent productions suggest that our stages may be starting to grapple with the accumulating existential threat to mankind. I didn’t see the American Repertory Theater’s production of Ocean Filibuster. This magazine’s critic praised it, but I am suspicious of the motives behind this kind of techno-extravaganza response to the destruction of the earth’s support system. But perhaps I am wrong: all theatrical hands should be welcomed on deck, from the earnest to the eye-popping. It is a more useful effort than mounting yet another jazzed-up, gender-bending revival of a decades old Broadway musical. One production that excited me was WAM’s staged reading of Amy Berryman’s script The New Galileos, which posited that government and big money interests were silencing climate change scientists (in this case three females) who were uncovering inconvenient realities. If politicians are charged with helping to ameliorate the climate crisis — we are well beyond solving it — then here was a powerful cry to those who care about the planet’s future to see to it that harsh truths are heard. And acted on.
And now here’s Alanna Mitchell’s personable but bracing Sea Sick, a one-woman show in which a Canadian journalist chronicles her investigation into why the oceans are dying, a quest that involved conversations with a number of top notch scientists. Eventually her research, though it understandably gave her a bad case of the blues, became the book Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, which won the Grantham Prize for excellence in environmental journalism. The show taps into the eloquence of an award-winning author: the evening has the merit of patiently and clearly explaining why the oceans have become so toxic, at times via numbers on a blackboard, most memorably when Mitchell drops a stick of chalk into a beaker of vinegar. Put simply, all the carbon dioxide that’s being pumped (in record levels) into the atmosphere is warming up the oceans, a process that inevitably leads to the depletion of oxygen. And, as Mitchell succinctly puts it, no oxygen, no life. (There are an increasing number of dead zones in the oceans, some the size of New Jersey. They will be the size of continents in the future.)
So Sea Sick supplies chunks of the truth, and it isn’t as scary as it could be because of Mitchell’s warm and humorous presence. I am a sucker for crusading journalists, and she is a disarmingly modest example of the indispensable breed. She is delivering an essential message: not only about the damage that is being done, but the horrors that are coming down the pike. We hear about her background — scientist father, artist mother — along with her doubts and fears. There is amusement as well, with a voyage to the bottom of the sea providing some genuine belly laughs. And that is quite a trick, given that a few minutes before Mitchell told us, with a touch of scolding concern, about the mass extinction that is sure to come.
Besides her ability to write well about the micro as well as the macro, Mitchell comes off as authentic; she has been performing this script for a while, but she seems genuinely tickled by the reactions of the audience. I mentioned chunks of the truth earlier because certain contributors to our decaying oceans are left out, perhaps for the sake of maintaining equanimity. For example, there is no mention of all the garbage dumped into the seas (we do hear about the pesticide run-off from farmers) because it would lead to the matter of consumerism. It is not just governments that need to act — the “I buy therefore I am” mentality is leading us over the climate cliff.
Mitchell ends her quest by telling us that, in order to face the challenges posed by climate change, we need to forgive ourselves (in a steely way, no sentimental or self-pitying slop) for the incalculable damage we have done. We will have to adapt ourselves to an environment increasingly hostile to life; the international chaos sure to follow will call for flexibility, activism, and the holistic meaning that only art can supply. I found this wind-up acceptable but a bit squishy. Shouldn’t there be a “Sea Sick Two”? Mitchell (or somebody of similar talent) reporting on what scientists insist should be done to salvage what we can of the planet? (Some interesting political/economic solutions are supplied by George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis.) For me, the journalist’s quest did not turn out to be — as she would have it — of the Joseph Campbell variety, a journey capped by a homeland return of the wised-up hero. Her search seemed to be closer to Oedipus’s. She discovered in herself the bravery to face (and then articulate to others) a tragic revelation about who we are and what we have done to the planet, the result of a hubris driven by our blind refusal to accept our interdependence with nature.
A statement in the program by co-director Franco Boni offers another fertile direction for theater artists to take, now that Mitchell has set out the gloomy facts: “That is what makes what we do so dangerous, because we have the ability to communicate a new cosmology.” That sounds absurd in our era of hour-and-a-half plays (Mitchell takes the stage for about 65 minutes). But theater used to be that ambitious. A hundred years ago George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah premiered in New York (believe it or not, on Broadway!). It was originally subtitled “A Play Cycle in Five Parts,” but Shaw later changed that to “A Metabiological Pentateuch.” The gargantuan work was, at least in part, a response to the traumatizing devastation of World War I; GBS wanted to stop himself (and society) from falling “into the bottomless pit of an utterly discouraging pessimism” by supplying what he called “a Bible of Creative Evolution.” A man who created his own optimistic religion, Shaw was no friend of conventional science — he rejected Darwin and natural selection. But it seems to me a time-tripping poetic/satiric drama that asks “whether the human animal, as he exists at present, is capable of solving the social problems raised by his own aggregation, or, as he calls it, his civilization” has something to say to us today, at the very least as an inspiration for theater artists to take up Boni’s call for visionaries of the dangerous variety.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Fuse. For just over four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.