Review by Amelia Parenteau
A warm, chatty audience assembled to take in PearlDamour’s Ocean Filibuster at the CAC, furthered warmed by the locally-cast ensemble of “activists” walking up and down the aisles with clipboards, asking us to sign their petition if we “stood with the ocean.” Originally commissioned in 2016 by the American Repertory Theater in partnership with the Harvard University Center for the Environment, Ocean Filibuster attempts the impossible: letting the vast, unknowable Ocean speak for itself.
The audience was seated facing a stark white stage, with a “Global Federation - Humans on Earth” seal projected upstage and Sorkin-esque music on loop. As the show begins, we learn we’re attending a special session of the Global Senate. “Mr. Majority” (Jennifer Kidwell) presents his “End of Ocean Bill” to “put the ocean out of its misery” by draining vast parts of it, thus creating more land and a smaller, condensed set of “seven seas” to cut our losses and continue sustaining human life on this planet for the foreseeable future. This speech is underscored by Evan Spigelman patriotically clashing cymbals, ever the comedic genius.
Then the anthropomorphized Ocean (also played by Kidwell) appears in a gown made of plastic bags to filibuster the bill. The Ocean goes on to regale the audience with a myriad of original songs, composed by Sxip Shirey, scientific facts, imaginings, and objections to the notion that humans (ourselves made of 60% water) could survive without it. Kidwell is magnificent, deftly transitioning between characters, wryly interacting with the audience, and singing their heart out.
As the Ocean contains multitudes, the ensemble periodically returns, dressed in diaphanous robes and coral-like headpieces, to amplify songs with their chorus of voices. The design for this show is outrageously good, from glorious costumes by Olivera Gajic to otherworldly projections by Stivo Arnoczy and Tal Yarden, and immaculate sound design by Andrew Lynch and Sxip Shirey.
At intermission, the audience is invited into the lobby to interact with several stations: activism resources to be gleaned through QR codes, a couple underwater dance parties, a sand art display of the composite ingredients of humans and oceans, and AR depictions of ocean life available via iPads.
Part two begins with Kidwell luxuriously draped over the Senate desk for some coy hilarity, followed by more songs, the end of the filibuster, inevitable manipulation by Mr. Majority, and a dreamscape of what ifs — envisioning if humans remembered we are, in fact, a part of the global ecosystem, rather than extractive parasites draining the planet for all it’s worth. The activists return for a final chorus, a whale song sung in the round (literally around the audience), and then we all trickled off into the night.
The creators’ key word was “wonder,” as the Ocean sings: “Isn’t it enough that I am beautiful? Just stand back, and wonder.” Confronted with the enormity of the climate crisis, no work of theater can offer tidy resolution. Instead, Ocean Filibuster asks its audience to be willing to be immersed in experience, open to feelings as well as facts. I, for one, was happy to swim around in that world, for a while.
Ocean Filibuster has ended its run but check out upcoming events at the CAC here.
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