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Theatre in Review: Spill (Ensemble Studio Theatre)/Sundown, Yellow Moon (WP/Ars Nova)

Top: Spill. Photo: Gerry Goodstein. Bottom: JD Taylor, Lilli Cooper. Photo: Ben Arons.

Two very different new plays illustrate the challenges of dramatizing material that might work better in other formats.

Spill is a piece of documentary theatre about the Deepwater Horizon incident, in which an offshore oil rig blew up, killing eleven and flooding the Gulf of Mexico with oil and other industrial contaminants. The largest oil spill in American history -- and a mind-boggling ecological disaster -- it continued to befoul the area for nearly three months.

Leigh Fondakowski's script is drawn from a variety of sources, including interviews, court documents, and news reports; as head writer of The Laramie Project, for Tectonic Theater Project, she clearly knows a thing or two about the documentary genre. Viewing the Deepwater Horizon story from the widest possible angle, she certainly has an eye for telling details. She is especially good on the oil rig culture of the Gulf Coast, in which young workers (almost all of them male) from all walks of life collect enormous paychecks in exchange for risking their lives for weeks at a time. (Being mostly young, the tradeoff seems more than fair to them.) The money buys them houses, trucks, boats, and a fraternity of coworkers with whom to drink and carouse. For young men of uncertain prospects, it must seem like a gift from the gods.

One interviewee, Shelley Anderson, speaks eloquently about the experience of being an "offshore wife," becoming used to her husband's work rhythm of two weeks on and two weeks off. "It's a high-risk job -- life or death -- we all know that," she says. "But -- it's like you never think it's going to happen to you. Not your guy." Later, when the worst has happened and nobody knows who survived and who didn't, she says, "I fell asleep praying with his safety certificate in my hands. I called every single hospital in the state of Louisiana. I believed I would find him. I believed he would be found. I believed he'd be fine. I kept convincing myself of his safety. I kept convincing myself. I kept convincing myself."

There are any number of moments like the above, when Spill briefly, devastatingly, comes into focus: Randy Ezell, a survivor of the explosion, recalls awakening to find himself covered with debris: "I got on my hands and knees. Then I felt something that felt like air. And I said to myself, 'I need to go. That leads out.' I could feel droplets. It was moist on the side of my face. What I thought was air was actually methane gas." Yet he is one of the lucky ones, having lived to tell his story. Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, the UK-based oil giant, testifies in court to his deep anguish over the disaster. Yet Billy Nungesser, president of a Louisiana parish, reveals that the survivors were pulled out of the water and held in boats -- until they signed non-disclosure agreements. And, in testimony, Hayward admits that, given the disaster that unfolded, there was no Plan B. "BP was not prepared for this. But everything we did was in line with the rest of the industry. No one was prepared for this."

Fondakowski's script is loaded with nuggets that amuse, dismay, and infuriate. I was especially struck by an episode in which some of the survivors and their families meet with President Obama -- and, in spite of everything that has gone down, a father who lost his son begs Obama to rethink his ban on offshore oil drilling; without it, he fears, the local economy will collapse. At the same time, fishermen look on in fear for the future of careers, while a reporter comments, "The millions of gallons of oil that have gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, and BP's efforts to fight the massive leak with chemical dispersants, are turning the Gulf into a lifeless, toxic stew of oil and chemicals."

But in commandeering such a vast range of material -- technical aspects of oil drilling, intricacies of the business, the anthropology of small-town Louisiana, scientific analysis of the disaster and its aftermath, along with various character portraits, Fondakowski hasn't quite managed to corral into the sweeping narrative that would necessarily keep the audience suspended between states of tension and fury. Too often, the script bogs down in details as characters step forward to deliver big dollops of data. Some interviewees are not especially interesting as characters, if only because they don't get enough stage time to make an impression. And the cast of eight, all of whom play multiple roles, don't always give their characters distinct-enough identities; as a result, you may find yourself looking at a performer, wondering who exactly is speaking.

The production's technical aspects are more assured. Sarah Lambert's industrial set, complete with metal platform, quickly disassembles following the disaster, providing a powerful visual expression of the chaos unleashed. Nick Francone's lighting runs the gamut from relatively restrained white-light looks to infernal color washes as the disaster unfolds. Lee Kinney's sound design includes such effects as airplanes, alarms, and explosions. Suzanne Chesney's costumes might have done more to help the performers delineate their characters, but her workers' uniforms certainly feel authentic.

Spill has its moments of power, but watching it, I couldn't help feeling that this terrible and important story would be better served as a documentary film, book, or long-form magazine article. There is much here that appalls, which should never be forgotten, but the artists involved haven't managed the alchemical trick of turning it into compelling theatre.

At the other extreme, Rachel Bonds, the author of Sundown, Yellow Moon, has conceived her play as a delicate miniature -- and still she muffs it. Sundown, Yellow Moon, a collection of plot points in search of a play, manages to strike a lazy summer night's atmosphere, loaded with characters and situations that fail to gel into anything interesting. Bonds has pioneered a novel dramatic approach: As soon as anything interesting occurs, she drops it like a hot potato, quickly moving on to other situations that will get only the most cursory treatment.

Tom, a middle-aged teacher at a private school in a small Tennessee town, is on forced leave from his job for accidentally striking the wife of his headmaster in the face. (He didn't mean to; he was railing at the headmaster and she got in the way of his moving fist.) He is being counseled in anger management by Carver, who was once part of a country band that, after his departure, topped the charts; this self-described "pretty sad dude" was also molested by a Catholic priest. Tom's daughters, Joey and Ray, show up for the summer, but they're of little help. Ray, a sometime musician and songwriter, is text-stalking her ex-girlfriend (and sometime employer), although the details of this situation are scant; in any case, she has given up music. Joey is about to leave for two years in Germany on a Fulbright, an award that leaves her surprisingly ambivalent. She takes up with Ted, a minor poet who lives in the shadow of his important-novelist wife; when their little dalliance ends, Joey goes into a suicidal spiral. (This episode is all too typical of a play that could be titled When Smart People Make Bafflingly Dumb Choices. Note to Joey: You are Europe-bound. Your beau is married. What did you think was going to happen? Signed, Ann Landers)

Insistently, maddeningly elliptical, Sundown, Yellow Moon is the stuff of a short story, or perhaps a novel -- not a satisfying drama. Everything is mentioned in passing and nothing is developed in Bond's script, with far too much of its brief, ninety-minute running time taken up with songs, by The Bengsons, which fail to illuminate the action. Anne Kauffman's direction can do nothing to impose any order on these shambling proceedings, with a number of fine talents on board, including Eboni Booth (Joey), Lilli Cooper (Ray), Peter Friedman (Tom), JD Taylor (Carver), and Greg Keller (Ted). Lauren Helpern's set frames the action in a picturesque surround of carved trees, but her multi-platform arrangement looks pretty crowded on the small McGinn-Cazale Theater stage. The lighting, by Isabella Byrd and Matt Frey, does create a number of evocative summer moonlight looks, however, and Leah Gelpe's sound design includes the effect of passing car as well as several radio broadcasts. Jessica Pabst's costumes once again demonstrate her skill at outfitting contemporary plays.

Near the end of Sundown, Yellow Moon, the action picks up a bit, followed by two songs -- one performed by Carver, the other by Tom and daughters; both are charming -- and, suddenly, the play is over, leaving so many plot strands dangling, you'll be stepping over them to get out of the theatre. I guess there's no problem a little family hootenanny can't fix. -- David Barbour


(17 March 2017)

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