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Theatre in Review: The Great Immensity (The Civilians/Public Theater)

Erin Wilhelmi and Chris Sullivan. Photo: Richard Termine

There can be no doubt that the greatest crisis facing mankind today is global warming, which is why it gives me no pleasure to report that The Great Immensity doesn't succeed either as absorbing theatre or a call to arms. The highly resourceful troupe known as The Civilians has in the past combined research and dramaturgy to great effect, probing the Christian culture of Colorado Springs in This Beautiful City and illuminating the political power plays that resulted in Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards project in In the Footprint. The Great Immensity aims to tackle the most vexing aspect of the climate-change issue: how to motivate people --- and governments-- -- who superficially understand what is happening to the planet yet somehow cannot take action. This time, however, Steve Cosson, The Great Immensity's writer and director, and his colleagues struggle with material that stubbornly resists being dramatized.

The Great Immensity is billed as a "continent-hopping thriller," which is half right, since the action ranges from Panama to northern Canada, but the action is both loaded with plot holes and weighed down with talk. It begins in Panama, where Phyllis, a woman in her 30s, has come in search of her husband, Karl, who has mysteriously disappeared. Karl is a cinematographer best-known for his work on the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, a detail that doesn't get nearly the kind of caustic treatment it deserves. Anyway, while Phyllis is puzzling over the few clues that Karl has left behind, we see how he became radicalized following his encounter with Julie, a young Earth Ambassador. This is a term for real-life climate activists, here rendered as a peppy, fresh-faced rainbow coalition of students assembled to make the world think that the UN is really doing something about our slow death by carbon dioxide poisoning. Of course, the UN is doing nothing of the kind, a fact conveyed in a musical number -- music and lyrics by Michael Friedman-- - that recounts the many international climate change meetings that have ended in irresolution and the postponement of any meaningful activity. This sequence is meant to be a blistering satire, but, thanks to the flat lyrics and melody-- - it is really nothing more than a bunch of declarative sentences with musical backup-- - it comes off more like a dirge. It is the first of several musical sequences that try to spoon-feed us harsh facts about the state of the environment.

Anyway, Julie is a strange mix of idealism and calculation; seeking Karl's help in getting her message across, she tells him, "I need people to think I'm innocent and heartfelt." (As played by Erin Wilhelmi, she has the wild-eyed look of a true fanatic, the kind of person you would cross the street to avoid meeting.) Julie introduces him to a shadowy network of computer hackers; she then enlists Karl's assistance in their unnamed master plan. Meanwhile, Phyllis follows the trail of evidence to Churchill, a town in northern Manitoba, which is known as the Polar Bear Capital of the world. (Polar bears, we are told, are an example of "charismatic fauna," the kind of animal that gets the attention of humans.) This allows the company to explain the dire fate awaiting many animals in a warming world, cueing a musical number about extinction of the passenger pigeon. It is in Churchill, amid the melting permafrost, that Phyllis finally understands Karl's involvement in Julie's scheme --- designed to generate headlines around the world ---- which involves the Earth Ambassadors, a Chinese freighter named The Great Immensity, and an upcoming climate summit in Paris.

First of all, The Great Immensity fails to compel as drama. Phyllis and Karl are so thinly drawn that they barely exist; imagining them in a marriage is next to impossible. The supporting characters' main function is to wring their hands about the coming climate crisis and the inability of mankind to react. I won't reveal Julie's plot, because it is the only surprise the script has to offer, but it is unwieldy and vaguely conceived, and is hardly likely to achieve the effect of focusing the world's attention. What's particularly distressing about the script is its inability to identify the forces blocking meaningful action on the climate. Cosson and company should study Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, which fearlessly named names as it cast a blinding light on those responsible for government inaction in the face of the AIDS crisis. If The Civilians really wanted to get the audience's collective blood boiling, they would focus on oligarchs like the Koch Brothers, who spend millions to convince the world that climate change is a fiction. They would single out Fox News, which has been publicly called out for purveying junk science to its audience. They would focus on well-known political and media figures, such as Sarah Palin and Senator James Inhofe, who insist that climate change is a hoax. There is much else that could be said-- - about the operators of coal-fired power plants who lobby against green legislation, and the critical need to bring China and India --- soon to be the world's biggest polluters --- on board. But really all The Great Immensity has to offer is platitudes about inactive governments and unnamed corporations.

Given their roles, Chris Sullivan and Rebecca Hart have no real chance of making any impression as Karl and Phyllis. In the supporting cast, Dan Domingues has the most presence in a variety of roles and Cindy Cheung has an amusing bit as one of the wranglers of the Earth Ambassadors. Mimi Lien's set design, a tower wall of corrugated metal, functions best as a screen for Jason H. Thompson's extensive array of projections, of tropical monkeys, polar bears, computer hackers, and maps of the world. Jeff Croiter's lighting, Sarah Beers' costumes, and Alex Hawthorn's sound are all up to the pPublic's usual high standards.

But given a deeply alarming situation that should be guaranteed to galvanize an audience, The Great Immensity leaves one dispirited and paralyzed. The way to activate people is to get them mad; The Civilians seem to merely want them to feel bad. This may be the least agitating agitprop I have ever come across.-- -David Barbour

(25 April 2014)

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