nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 7, 2010
Staying Afloat, a new play by Lenora Champagne, is the opening entry in Ice Factory 2010, which is the last edition of this new works festival that will be held at the much-loved Ohio Theatre. In many ways, it's a fitting beginning to this valedictory Ice Factory, in that it's a meditation on displacement, on our attempts to control an ultimately uncontrollable environment, and on our responsibilities to those who come after us.
When the play begins, we are on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean, occupied by Wendy, who is pregnant, and Mary Jo, who at the moment is off catching a fish for their supper. Champagne keeps us curious about how these two ladies wound up here, but we learn slowly that this is happening in a near-apocalyptic future, when global warming has put much of the world under water.
Wendy and Mary Jo are soon joined by the play's third character, Priscilla, a polar bear. No one seems surprised that Priscilla speaks English, which gives you a lot of information about the magical realism/surrealism that Champagne indulges in here: this is a bear who talks longingly of summers spent with her mate in a town in Maine, waiting for the ice to re-freeze in their Arctic home. More important, this is a bear who speaks bird and seal language (and probably many others) in addition to human English; she's in tune with her world in a way that Wendy and Mary Jo can never hope to be, and she's consequently both more nurturing and more ruthless as she understands and accepts her place in the natural way of things.
Staying Afloat is anything but simple or facile; and yet that's the most significant takeaway, I think: it's not just that humans are too short-sighted to comprehend the catastrophic affects of their efforts to exploit the world around them; but that we are at once too insensitive and too sentimental to truly appreciate what we have.
The play progresses, often humorously, often pensively, as the three females learn about each other, come to terms with each other, and make what plans and provisions they can for Wendy's baby. I did not see the ending coming, and I was saddened that Champagne's vision, at least here, is less hopeful that I might wish. But be that as it may: there is real wisdom in this play, and immense imagination and stagecraft, none of which will surprise those familiar with this remarkable writer-director's work.
The three women in the cast—Tricia Rodley as Wendy, Gita Reddy as Mary Jo, and Kathryn Danielle as Priscilla—all deliver excellent performances. Tyler Micoleau's lighting delineates the passage of time along with Lisa Dove's sound and music design. A few wistful, simple songs—one of them almost nursery-rhyme-like in its innocence—punctuate the drama, sung the way real people sing, with a dimly heard accompaniment and a joy that belies any need to hit the correct notes every time. I liked the imperfection of these musical interludes very much; they remind us that what's untouched and unblemished is often what's most beautiful and, ultimately, most important.