The premise of 70 Million Tons, an off-off Broadway comedy on climate change playing at the Looking Glass Theatre, sounds a little over-the-top and well, strange, on first read, especially for the skeptic in you. It goes something like this:
A group of self-absorbed, classically-trained actors, under the direction of the impossibly more self-absorbed "Broadway Barracuda" Billie (Ivory Aquino), are rehearsing The Tempest for an off-off Broadway production. That is, until Billie gets an unexpected visit from an angry God (Dennelle Heidi Clarke) -- bear with me-- who also happens to be a hot girl. God orders her to ditch The Tempest and convince her cast, in under one hour, to perform an environmentally-friendly, modern performance of Not Again, Noah!, with a budget of zero dollars. Or what? Or else she'll bring on another Great Flood and wipe out humanity.
Ok, so there's no denying that's over the top. But instead of feeling contrived, 70 Million Tons, skillfully directed by Chanda Calentine, manages to be charmingly original, in large part because it embraces its own absurdity.
Religion seems like the last thing we need in a debate that already has enough complicating factors. However, the climate change debate has at times been framed as one between those who believe in God and those who believe in climate change. Those who make the God argument, as Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) did late last year, completely disregard the science and use quotes like this as evidence: "The Earth will end only when God declares its time to be over."
When you've got arguments like that being touted as fact, does science really stand a chance? Sometimes it feels like the only way to spur deniers to action is through some sort of holy intervention.
On the flipside, religion is often used as a validation of climate change, with many making the claim that it's a moral impetus to be more environmentally-conscious and retain the beauty of the God's creation.
The play successfully maneuvers both sides of the religion argument in such a way that it doesn't come off as offensive. God is the voice of reason, demanding her minions be kinder to her planet, and there's nothing particularly offensive about that. But doesn't that greatly increase its potential of coming off as too preachy? 70 Million Tons escapes this pitfall by getting a little tongue-in-cheek. God may be the voice of reason, but her personality is like that of an impatient, unreasonable child, or raging murderer, who wants her way, declaring humans' time on Earth to be over unless everyone does what she says. Her irrational behavior makes it clear to the audience that the absurdity of a holy intervention is not lost on them.
Any skepticism you might have about the required suspension of disbelief is also dispelled by the play's strong cast of characters. They're all in disbelief too, giving it a playful sense of self-awareness. Aside from Antonia (Jessica Wohlander), the blissfully optimistic environmentalist, all of the characters are completely environmentally-oblivious, a tad snarky, and easy targets to parody-- Peter (Ben Harrison), the overly narcissistic one; Dirk (Chaz Graytok), the flamboyantly gay, self-conscious one, and so on. Even Antonia's eco-enthusiasm becomes a source of parody, showing writer Terri McKinstry's ability to laugh at both sides. In the end, this works to the play's advantage, as it makes all the characters easy to like since they're so easy to laugh at.
The delivery of the subject matter is on par for most of the play, but in terms of its message itself, it can be a little simple for adults, especially since for the most part it's preaching to the choir. Furthermore it isn't entirely convincing as a farce because of the somewhat abrupt interjections of its message, to explain what CFL light bulbs are, what composting is, to show examples of reuse, etc. For those who don't need an education, it can at times come off as oversimplified, and for adults who don't believe in climate change, well, they won't be listening anyways.
This is ideal, however, for the target audience that would get more than just a laugh out of it: Kids. Environment reporter Andrew C. Revkin recently wrote in The New York Times about educating the youth on climate change. "I've begun focusing on younger audiences for many reasons, one being a growing realization that many adults I've met in 20 years of covering global warming have been locked into rigid views of the world that distort how they absorb what scientists are saying," Revkin said. "To me, communicating to young people simply raises the odds that information about the environment and humanity's role in shaping it -- for better or worse -- gets to where it's most likely to be put to good use."
70 Million Tons is billed as a "family-friendly comedy," and it's clear why-- it has all the trappings to appeal to a child's imagination and mind, giving them useful life lessons that don't feel like they're being shoved down their throats. It puts the youth in the center of the climate change discussion and values their potential role in instigating a sea change in thinking.
70 Million Tons is playing at the Looking Glass Theatre in New York City through April 28. Click here for details.