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A Brief History of Human Extinction: barely a whimper

by | Oct 12, 2018 | Review | 0 comments

Upintheair Theatre is producing A Brief History of Human Extinction at The Cultch.

Ommie the otter, Ever, and Adam boldly face the future—kind of. (Photo by Matt Reznik)

You’d think that a play about the last days of the human race might have some kind of tension, some kind of stakes, but nope, not this one. In A Brief History of Human Extinction, which was created by Jordan Hall and Mind of a Snail (Jessica Gabriel and Chloé Ziner), nothing much matters—for a bunch of reasons.

For starters, the premise doesn’t make sense. We’re in the year 2178. Unleashed by climate change, a fungal plague has apparently wiped out all other forms of life on earth, except for two humans named Ever and Adam, an otter called Ommie, and the farm animals and crops that Adam tends. These surviving life forms are all sequestered in a locked-down biosphere.

Ever is determined to launch a rocket called The Ark, which will carry viable DNA from all sorts of earthly creatures—including Homo sapiens—to a distant planet, which they will then populate. When we first meet Ever, she is recording a video message for the human spawn, who will be 12 years old when they arrive on Kepler-186f. But who will have raised this unlucky band? Ever and Adam will not be accompanying them.

Ever’s plan is so loose, so fundamentally unbelievable, that it neuters the central conflict. In that plan, she and Adam run out of fuel and die shortly after bidding The Ark adieu. Understandably, Adam wants to forego launching The Ark and use their limited resources to survive longer on Earth. He kind of likes the idea of making babies, too. The problem with the Ever/Adam argument is that the embodiment of Ever’s side of it is abstract—and off-stage. It’s about faceless DNA.

As the script natters on self-consciously about notions of selfishness and co-operation, the relationship between Ever and Adam remains woefully underdeveloped: she is dedicated to The Ark and a bit sentimental about her otter pal, he is an amiable dope, and that’s about all we get. If the creators of A Brief Historywanted to find theatrical richness, they should have delved into the hearts of these two: they’re right in front of us.

I’ve also got to say that it feels like there are disparate sensibilities at work in this piece—the equivalent of an aesthetic bad marriage. The text itself is heady, serious, and self-conscious. I suspect that’s playwright Hall at work. In her play, How To Survive an Apocalypse, she also shackled herself to a certain extent with abstractions. In the wonderful Multiple Organism, Gabriel and Ziner, the artists from Mind of a Snail, displayed a very different aesthetic. In that show, their use of overhead projections, live video, and live action fed a story that was visceral, irreverent, and madly associative. Too often, in A Brief History of Human Extinction, it feels like the Snail’s fluid talents are being used to illustrate a text that’s too blocky for them if you know what I mean. I do understand that, when Mind of a Snail came onto this project, Hall opened her existing draft to revision and everybody involved attempted a thorough assimilation—but, for me, the result still feels unintegrated.

Still, there are some lovely moments of staging. Stephanie Elgersma designed Ommie, the otter puppet, and is her chief operator. Ommie is a charmer and swims beautifully. And I was always up for immersion in Mind of a Snail’s trademark world of fantasy, in which shadow puppets and the shadows of live actors often appear in colourful sets created by overhead projections. In one of my favourite moments, Adam checks the fuel gauges for the biosphere and they register “Nothin’”, “Nada”, “Zilch”, “Nope”, and other variations on the theme.

An emotionally resourceful performer, Lisa C. Ravensbergen puts her heart into this difficult material, which helps to keep it grounded. And, with less to work with, Daniel Martin finds some lovely moments as Adam—especially in the character’s gormless romanticism and in the precision of his mime when interacting with projections.

Upintheair Theatre took a huge risk with this extremely ambitious project. (With live action, projections, and puppets, there’s a lot going on.) On opening night, the company pulled off the production side—by the skin off their teeth, judging from the relieved looks on their faces during the curtain call. Ultimately, the problem with this production is its conception. Still, I appreciate the urge to innovate, and the enormous amount of work that clearly went into A Brief History of Human Extinction.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMAN EXTINCTION Created by Jordan Hall and Mind of a Snail. Directed by Tamara McCarthy. Produced by Upintheair Theatre. Presented by The Cultch.In The Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Thursday, October 11.  Continues until October 20.



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