note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
Scientists, the military, local native and animal populations, activists, politicians, and private oil companies combine and collide in Underground Railway Theater’s artistic production of Chantal Bilodeau’s ambitious, compelling play “Sila”.
The multifacted two-act play pushes and pulls in many directions to create its dramatic goal of alerting us to the wide-reaching, trickle-down, devastating effect of global warming and man’s infringement and destruction of the Arctic’s natural environment and balance.
Bilodeau, originally from Montreal and based in New York City, is the artistic director of The Arctic Cycle, an organization that supports writing and producing eight plays that examine the impact of climate change on the Arctic’s eight countries: the US, Canada, Greenland, Iceland,Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. “Sila,” (pronounced See-la), Bilodeau’s first play, which won awards, focuses on remote Baffin Island, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. The play’s title is the Inuktitut for breath, meaning “the substance of life, which circulates in and out of every living thing.” It cleverly depicts our global, human, animal, scientific, and mythic interconnectedness and the need to react now, to preserve and protect our planet. Although last Saturday, was a sunshiny day outdoors, Szu-Feng Chen’s iceberg-draped, dappled snow set, sound designer Emily Auciello’s roaring Arctic winds, and light designer David Roy’s background Northern lights, chilly skies, and paranormal undersea silhouetted creatures send a resounding chill throughout the small theater.
David Fichter’s uncanny, personified mother and cub polar bears, realistically created by puppet builders, are sensitively performed and manipulated by Danny Bryck (who also portrays Canadian Coast Guard officer Raphael), Skye Ellis, and Theresa Nguyen as Daughter Bear, the cub.
While the actors’ performances are laudable, some are pulled down by their thickly-spread native, Canadian and French accents, which come and go like shifting winds. Their accents and dialogue in three languages create viewer frustration, not realism. Bilodeau’s story and message, the group’s special effects and characters command our attention. And actor Gabrielle Weiler adds Inuit legend, myth and the paranormal as the shadow puppeteer.
Bilodeau ties all facets together, introducing us to well-spoken, Inuit educator-activist Leanna, (Reneitta Arluk), who tirelessly travels to address groups, trying to enlighten politicians, educators and organizations about the world’s shrinking- and melting- natural environment and its devastating effects. Despite her impassioned, knowledgeable presentations and petitions, her attempts to get policy passed to preserve and protect the Arctic region are futile.
Her daughter, Veronica, a single mother of a teen-age son, (Sophori Ngin, who also portrays the mother polar bear at times), writes and leads native poetry sessions. Ngin is gut-wrenching as she tries to enlist her activist mother as a speaker in the school, and anguishes over her son, citing the mounting teen-age suicides in their community. As Leanna tries to preserve her part of the world, while Veronica tries to preserve their native culture and her son. Bilodeau counterbalances Veronica with the mother polar bear’s teaching her cub survival and cultural skills, such as hunting, fishing, the sky and the sea’s signs and guideposts.
The touching effects of mother and child, their love and protectiveness, emanates poetically and symbolically to theatergoers.
But Bilodeau doesn’t stop there. She squeezes in a recently-divorced, scientifically dedicated climatologist named Jean (Nael Nacer), whom retiring Canadian Coast Guard officer Thomas (Robert Murphy) enlists in his team, hoping to build a tunnel in the Arctic Ocean for oil companies, seeking to carry oil from the region. Thomas cites its inevitability from any of the surrounding countries, and wants Canada to reap the benefits first.
As Jean laments the loss of his stillborn baby and his divorce, young Canadian officer Raphael (Bryck) eagerly awaits word from his pregnant wife about their impending first baby’s birth.
Thomas races to get his team together, while Leanna jets off to one speaking commitment after another. Jean hires a hesitant native guide named Kuvageegai (Jaime Carrillo), who insists on waiting until “the time is right” to go. He also insists on appeasing local mythic gods.
Tragedy strikes twofold, rescues occur, an angry underwater goddess preaches to Jean, who has fallen into her icy depths, but survives his near-death experience.
“The real issue isn’t climate change. The real issue is our own humanity...We humans are ill-equipped to deal with loss,” chants Leanna.
Bilodeau wants theatergoers to feel, experience, and share her characters‘ deep sorrow, and realize we own that grief, too. She’s warning us now, tapping us on the shoulder, sending an icy effect of doom, to inspire us into action.
BOX INFO: World premiere of Chantal Bilodeau’s two-act, award-winning play, presented by Underground Railway Theater, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, through May 25 at Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge: Wednesdays, Thursdays, at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, at 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3,8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets start at $15; student rush, subject to availability day of show, $20 with valid college ID. Call 866-811-4111, visit the Box Office or CentralSquareTheater.org.