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Risa Shoup

Risa Shoup

Posted: April 27, 2010 05:11 PM

Twenty-First Century Fish Tale

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I fear I've become desensitized to themes of environmental conservation. I recycle, okay? I drink water out of my SIGG, I use biodegrable laundry detergent and recycled toilet paper, and I'm writing this under the warm glow of a fluorescent light bulb. But it's gotten to the point where I can't even enjoy my favorite color anymore without feeling like I'm getting a lecture. It isn't that I don't care about saving our planet - quite the opposite. I've factored "being green" into my lifestyle, my repartee, and my list of things to be anxious about. So when I sit down to enjoy a little entertainment, I want some distraction... but I realize blinding myself to man's destruction of our ecosystem is as bad as driving a Hummer while clubbing a seal, if not worse.

Polybe and Seats' A Thousand, Thousand Slimy Things is a play that raises awareness about marine conservation wrapped in fantasia. The play is not an allergory, and it feels neither didactic nor cloyingly topical. It is at once an engaging fiction and a harrowing tale of the dangers of pollution. Playwright Katya Schapiro says, "As artists, we approach the problems of climate change and the richness of the ocean landscape from a different perspective than that of a climate scientist or a marine biologist, as we hope in this way to contribute to the ongoing conversation--but also, we just can't resist a great story, and there's nothing like the sea for that."

The company has been developing this story for several years. Director Jessica Brater was initially inspired by "Save our Tails" campaign to preserve Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, "the only city of live mermaids" and one of America's oldest roadside attractions. Later, concern for ocean acidification lead to the company's discovery of the North Central Pacific Gyre, a patch of garbage in the Pacific spanning nearly ten million square miles. Katya Schapiro's poetic script conflates these stories into one walloping fish tale fusing the words of Coleridge and Ibsen with mutating mermaids, love-struck explorers, and original text generated by over 20 actors, writers and designers.

The show opened auspiciously the day after Earth Day and takes place on the Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Not only is this the perfect environment for a play about the life marine, but in the words of the organization, it is meant to inspire an "understanding of the NY Harbor as a waterway carrying commerce and commuters as well as a means for culture and recreation." The set and props are made entirely from recycled and salvaged materials. A bright yellow octopus is made from plastic bags and the stripped skeleton of an umbrella; the skin of a mermaid is really made from repurposed acid-green material of plasticized origins.

Sitting in the audience, you are at once awed by these innovative recycling efforts and drawn into the magical hand-made world that reminds you of the power of the organic over the artificial. "We make work that embraces multiple points of view, inviting audience members to connect with the action onstage on their own terms," Brater reflects on her expectations for the audience. "We want to entertain and we want to encourage individual thought. The company was mindful of these principles throughout the development process."

The collaborative design and development of "A Thousand, Thousand Slimy Things" mirror the story's reminder that we humans are not lone inhabitants of this planet, and conservation, if it is to be successful, must be a cooperative effort. The most overt line of the play reads "our thinking is human centric because if we're gone, who cares?" This shocking sentiment is a direct quotation lifted from the company's interview with Taro Takahashi, a geo-chemist the company interviewed at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. One can consider this two ways: an acid-tongued reprimand about the destructive nature of man's human-centric thinking, but also a caution that our planet's fate is our responsibility.

The ending of the play is haunting and ambiguous. The true hero of the story is the sea itself with man as both protagonist and antagonist. The play acknowledges our fear of change but commands us not be immobilized by it. Change - in the evolution of our race as in the evolution of our planet - may be inevitable, but we have the ability to ensure change does not result in catastrophe.

"A Thousand, Thousand Slimy Things" runs every Friday through Sunday at 7PM until May 9. Tickets are $18 and available through SmartTix.