When I told a friend I was going to a play about climate change, his response was "ugh." And I have to admit that I agreed: What a dispiriting topic — and what an undramatic one. I wondered how an issue so complicated and daunting could be made into theater — musical theater.
Kansas City Repertory Theatre and theater group the Civilians must have had these concerns in mind when producing The Great Immensity, which is premiering here. The show addresses most of the responses that global warming provokes in people: denial, fatigue, complacency, misconceptions, impatience, procrastination. And its mixture of information, story, video and music doesn't lack humor or court boredom.
Written and directed by Steve Cosson, founding artistic director of the Civilians, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, the story begins with a Skype conversation between Polly (Rebecca Hart) and a ship spotter (Todd Cerveris) who watches the movements of freighters around the world (including the Great Immensity, from China). The two of them have devised some sort of scheme prior to the upcoming Auckland Summit. When Polly disappears, her twin sister, Phyllis (also Hart), goes looking for her in the rainforest of Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal (the creation of which is told through video and the company-sung "A Man, a Plan, a Canal"). Polly is there to shoot video for some unknown project.
There, Phyllis meets a small group of scientists (portrayed by Dan Domingues, Eddie Korbich and Meghan McGeary) conducting research on the island. As Phyllis investigates why her sister vanished, she learns about the scientists' work and her sister's environmental concerns. Meanwhile, scenes depict the weeks and days leading up to Polly's disappearance, when she was filming interviews with Julie (Molly Carden), a very disillusioned teenage "Earth Ambassador" also on the island.
The set is flexibly modular (design by Mimi Lien), with the versatility to evoke ambience and vary the surroundings. Video is used in different ways (projection design by Jason Thompson) and also helps illustrate the scientists' observations and narratives.
If this all sounds dry, this rainforest isn't. Whenever I thought the show was getting a bit detailed or didactic, the dialogue or song lyrics shifted and surprised. Most of the show's nine songs are clever, and all are well-performed (music direction and piano accompaniment by Daniel Doss). Especially memorable are "Martha, the Last Pigeon" (performed by Cerveris, Korbich and Domingues) and McGeary's rendering of "Charismatic Megafauna."
By the time Act 1 ended, I realized that my expectations for the show had been wrong. I'd been entertained and informed by a story that was turning out to be compelling. And I was curious to see what would happen next and how the mystery would ultimately resolve.
But along came Act 2. The setting changes to the Arctic port of Churchill, Canada, with Domingues, Korbich and McGeary now playing new characters. They drew me in, as did the problems and changes occurring in the Arctic. But eventually the plot lost its way.
It's an overwhelming topic, global warming, but this show makes it both immediate and accessible. (The play has been partly funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation.) It brings more awareness to a controversial issue and is engaging in its imaginative rendering of the subject.
But its resolution, as it plays now, is anticlimactic, not meeting the aspirations — or my changing expectations — of the enterprise. But like Kyoto and subsequent agreements, though ultimately disappointing, there's hope that it's a work in progress.