Written and directed by Karen Malpede
Produced by Theater Three Collaborative and Theater for the New City
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 10.26.14
Theater for the New City, 155 1st Ave.
by Keith Paul Medelis on 10.15.14
George Bartenieff and Kathleen Purcell in Extreme Whether.
BOTTOM LINE: An intriguing and well-intentioned new work that puts a story on the massive challenges involved in climate change.
Extreme Whether’s first act takes place in Bush Jr.’s 2004, on a wilderness estate in the Northeast. Climate scientist John Bjornson (Jeff McCarthy) is on the fence about delivering an important climate change speech. His graduate student disciple and lover Rebecca (Di Zhu) encourages him to make the speech in spite of political pressure. John’s twin sister Jeanne (Ellen Fiske) seems to have other interests and is less convinced of John’s recent, disastrous climate change predictions. John’s intersex daughter Annie (Kathleen Purcell) has something resembling ADD and spends her time with Uncle (George Bartenieff) playing in polluted waters and with a deformed frog named Sniffly.
Jeanne’s much younger lover Frank (Alex Tavis) is able to land John a televised interview but his intents aren’t pure. John believes that he will be the only one speaking but it is instead a debate show in which the climate change denier receives the last word. John is unable to say how he feels about the science and remains an observant scientist talking in theory rather than certainty. It’s a disaster and shatters John even into Act 2's 2014.
Now Rebecca has taken the reins and improved John’s work in a widely published document. Trouble she believes her email has been hacked as one important equation has a decimal point in the wrong place that threatens her credibility. We discover on the family drama side of things that Jeanne owns much of the land that the estate is on and plans to, in a wincing statement, “drill baby, drill.” It seems that Jeanne gets her wish and the future looks bleak.
The most compelling of the stories here is a most topical one. The People’s Climate March last month marked an exciting era for a new generation of scientists as activists. And it’s a difficult turn in the spotlight for many of them as they wrestle with theory and theses. Extreme Whether offers an interesting look at this dynamic between a scientist of an older generation with a younger minder, socially aware one. What troubles me is the character that director and playwright Karen Malpede paints with Frank, the climate denier who also seems a devious sexual predator. He is a villain of the first order, written thinly so as to mask any thread of decency making this story line difficult to go with.
There are some really solid performances here from a joyful Bartenieff as Uncle and a determined but conflicted McCarthy as John. They are the amazing heart of this play that I’d love to know more about. And there’s a particularly lovely relationship that we see form between Bartenieff and a feisty Purcell as Annie in the second act.
The set design (by Derek Connell) is sometimes confusing, placing two disparate scenic elements to extreme edges of the playing space leaving actors stranded in an expansive center with no obstacles. To one side a massive pond-like drape that feels very different in style to the patchwork of masonry fireplace on the other end. The lighting by Tony Giovannetti doesn’t assist much in isolating the many scenes necessary for the story.
The intentions of Extreme Whether are not to be understated. The show is part of an endeavor titled A Festival of Conscience that is providing a forum for dialogues by climate scientists, writers, and activists after many of the performances. (The full schedule is available online so be sure to check it out.) And this is what theater is meant to be -- a tool for gathering and disseminating ideas, even activating new ones.
After this performance an actor announced that the Theater Three Collaborative is in search of a producer to move forward with the project. I do believe that with further development and financial support we haven’t seen the last of Extreme Whether. At the end of the piece we are offered the hopeful glimmer that change is possible if we act now -- is this a disaster or an exciting challenge? Karen Malpede is eager to make it the latter.
(Extreme Whether plays at Theater for the New City through October 26, 2014. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30PM; and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $18 and $10 for students/seniors, and are available at smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444. For more visit theaterforthenewcity.net/extremewhether.htm.)