By Harrison David Rivers; Conceived and Directed by Sherri Eden Barber
Produced by Ricochet Collective
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 10.28.17
Teatro Círculo, 64 East 4th Street
by Keith Paul Medelis on 10.14.17
Meryl Jones Williams in Only You Can Prevent Wildfires. Photo by Jody Christopherson.
BOTTOM LINE: Only You Can Prevent Wildfires dramatizes the true story behind a massive wildfire started by U.S. Forest Service ranger Terry Lynn Barton.
In 2002, what became known as the Hayman Fire led to $42 million worth of damage, the worst wildfire in Colorado history. The creative team behind Only You Can Prevent Wildfires probably did not foresee that their play would open while California’s wine country is engulfed in flames. What may be a climate change-provoked event in California is, here in Colorado, much more personal.
Taking their cues from the actual events of U.S. Forest Service ranger Terry Lynn Barton’s intentional setting of a fire, Harrison David Rivers imagines the events surrounding this fateful decision from one who had to have known better. Barton is played powerfully by Meryl Jones Williams. Throughout the play, we’re reminded of the dangers of an unsafe campfire by an actual Smokey the Bear (played without irony by Adam A. Keller). He also becomes a figure to console, and occasionally share a cigarette with, in a moment of unwinding.
Special Agent Kim Jones (Drae Campbell) is tasked with determining the cause of the fire. Her growing obsession with the case causes her relationship with partner Kai (Mikaela Izquierdo) to suffer. In some of Rivers’ most successful moments, he’s able to contrast this with Barton’s struggles with her own relationship with her ex-husband John (John J. Concado). The fire, caused by this conflict, breeds even more conflict in its aftermath as we are asked to put the pieces together.
Wildfires is meticulously designed and executed. The theater has been transformed by designer Clifton Chadick into an open patch of forest, with rubber pellets emulating the forest floor. We sit on wooden benches lining walls; above us are Joey Moro’s immersive projections that suggest forests and alternatively bars. Mark Van Hare plunges us there with atmospheric sounds as well.
Every moment is thoroughly examined, underscored with music, and obsessively staged. All of this examination starts to feel like showing off, design for the sake of design. Yes, the projection work is exciting, with some beautifully colorful forest designs that transform the space like magic. And then there’s video of the bedroom that feels unnecessary and distracting. These compositions, and Van Hare's sound design, are interesting, but because they fill every moment, you start to get the sense that you are inside a music video rather than a play.
Harrison David Rivers, who had a thrilling offering over the summer with And She Would Stand Like This, is working too hard with this material. Rivers is a tremendous new voice in the theater and I wish he had stayed true to the authentic poetry of his previous work. The dialogue feels heavy here, not letting the performances feel lived-in, but rather put-upon. Barton's critical motivations for committing a crime of such epic proportions don’t rise to the level we need in order to care enough about her journey. Sherri Eden Barber’s direction is precise and aggressive, much like the tormented relationships and threatening fire. It’s her choice to offer more metaphorical staging, with choreographed movement (provided by Caitlin Bailey and Ali Perkins) that doesn’t feel called for in its obviousness.
This story is compelling and a tremendously satisfying research endeavor. Ricochet Collective is stacked with talent and if these ideas are any indication, the company is an enormous creative force. The edit button should be next, in order to let the essential story really shine through. I look forward to more of their work.
(Only You Can Prevent Wildfires plays at Teatro Círculo, 64 East 4th Street, through October 28, 2017. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 7, with an additional performance on Monday, October 23 at 7. Tickets are $25. More information and tickets available at ricochetcollective.com or by calling 800-838-3006.)
Only You Can Prevent Wildfires is by Harrison David Rivers. Conceived and Directed by Sherri Eden Barber. Choreography by Caitlin Bailey and Ali Perkins. Scenic Design by Clifton Chadick. Costume Design by Stephanie Levin. Lighting Design by Serena Wong. Composer and Sound Designer is Mark Van Hare. Projection Design by Joey Moro. Production Stage Manager is Elizabeth Ann Goodman.
The cast is Drae Campbell, John J. Concado, Mikaela Izquierdo, Adam A. Keller, and Meryl Jones Williams.