By Mark Faverman
Ocean Filibuster draws on a wonderful fusion of myth, song, free verse and science to explore why we stand on the frightening edge of our planet’s survival cliff.
Ocean Filibuster, created by PearlDamour. Text by Lisa D’Amour. Music by Sxip Shirey. Directed by Katie Pearl. With Jennifer Kidwell. Staged by the American Repertory Theater 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge. A digital version of Ocean Filibuster is available to stream on demand until March 27.
Theater at its best should enrich as much as entertain, and the American Repertory Theater Ocean Filibuster also has the merit of plunging the public: this production plunges under the waves. Visually, the design of this world first is spectacular and sometimes even visceral. But alongside an immersive experience, the scenario takes an intimate yet critical look at the relationship between man and the ocean. The play draws on a wonderful fusion of myth, song, free verse and science to explore why we stand on the frightening edge of our planet’s survival cliff.
The plot, a tense debate between Mr. Majority and the feminine Ocean herself, takes off immediately. Both characters are played, impressively, by Obie Award-winning Jennifer Kidwell. The framework is a Senate chamber of some sort of global governing body. Majority is introducing an End of the Oceans Bill designed to reduce our planet’s oceans to a more manageable and marketable assemblage of inland seas. After his somewhat heavy introductory presentation, the floor is given to the debate. The Ocean steps forward to speak in its own defense.
From then on, humanity’s arbitrary and sometimes savage treatment of nature takes center stage via a verbal ping-pong match (with visual and musical accompaniment) between Mr. Majority and the Ocean. It’s not forbidden: unfair rules and regulations, misunderstood science, devastating human waste, ecological abuse and climate change. The Ocean conveys its case simply by talking about the difficulty of continuing.
Staging is usually a highlight of any production at ART Here, sleek lighting turns into brilliant immersive animation and real-time video. The beautiful environmental backdrop is as vital a performer as any of the staging actors/singers. It’s the glorious creation of a talented team that included set designer Jian Jung, lighting designer Thomas Dunn and, more strategically, projection designer Tal Yardem. The costumes skillfully depict how plastics are devastating our oceans. The diaphanous outfits of sea creatures imagined by costume designer Olivera Gajic are particularly subtle. They can be seen floating elegantly in the shadows.
Music is an important component of Ocean Filibuster as well as. Sound and music were created by music director Sxip Shirey, who collaborated with Lisa D’Amour on the lyrics. D’Amour wrote the script for the show. The overall production design was handled with artistic finesse by Lisa McGinn. Director Katie Pearl undertook the difficult chore of choreographing every element of the production, usually using whatever she commands to underscore the drama of the narrative.
Switching beautifully between the roles of Mr. Majority and Ocean – sometimes even merging the archetypes together – Kidwell gives a powerful performance, making maximum use of his charismatic presence. The other cast members are also terrific, their performances accentuated by their beautiful singing voices.
Between the two acts, there was an unusual intermission: part science fair, part side show, and part use of augmented reality. Spectators were invited to use a QR Code projected in the room to access the augmented reality images that were in the physical “islands” set up in the hall. At the same time, artists were doing vignettes and songs on stage. The problem with this three-ring circus approach was that there was so much to see and hear that you were torn – paying attention to one thing meant you missed something else. Still, the glut was all fun.
Although highly imaginative in design and presentation, Ocean Filibuster will need upgrades if it is to make the trip to Broadway and beyond. Throughout the production, there is a back and forth between pedagogy and pageantry which quickly becomes tense. The fast delivery of some performers made it difficult to follow the action, at times – audience members are sometimes left wading through the ocean waves. And the visual delights were often weighed down by too much technical explanation; the explosions of science in the first act speak and the bureaucratic chatter was too heavy. For me, the first half is too long; he could use a dramatic crunch. The second act was more theatrically fluid and infectious.
Since 1980, when the American Repertory Theater arrived in Cambridge, its mission has been to expand the frontiers of theatre. The troupe focused on developing distinctive, in some cases groundbreaking, theatrical experiences. With its fusion of science and art, state-of-the-art staging and gender-specific performances, Ocean Filibuster continues this tradition of not being traditional. It’s an immersive musical theatrical experience that does more than just come on stage – it shocks our consciences about what’s happening to our surroundings. It’s a testament to the power of the show that this debate is so hard to ignore.
Urban planner and public artist, Marc Faverman has been deeply involved in branding, improving and creating more accessible parts of cities, sports venues and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is a design consultant for the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002, he has been a design consultant for the Red Sox. Writing on urban planning, architecture, design and the fine arts, Mark is associate editor of artistic fuse.