In several of their immersive, large-scale performance pieces, Obie Award-winning theater makers Lisa D’Amour and Katie Pearl, who go by the moniker PearlDamour, have explored the connections between environmental and human systems — and the failure to see that we’re not separate from the natural world but an integral part of it. In their 2011 work “How to Build a Forest,” actors constructed and then dismantled a simulated forest over the course of eight hours. For “Lost in the Meadow,” staged at the Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia, audiences wearing headphones watched and listened in on characters in a post-apocalyptic landscape while the Earth spoke through a massive megaphone tower.
So it was a no-brainer for PearlDamour when the artistic staff of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge and Dan Schrag of the Harvard University Center for the Environment offered them a commission as part of an initiative to bring science and environmental issues to the stage and “communicate the urgency of the climate crisis to a broader public.”
The duo quickly gravitated toward the oceans as their subject. The resulting show, “Ocean Filibuster,” is receiving its world premiere at the Loeb Drama Center through March 13. Featuring a genre-scrambling mix of music, sound, and video, the play tells a mythological story about a showdown between the Ocean and Mr. Majority, the leader of a global senate, with star Jennifer Kidwell embodying both characters.
Early in the process of creating the show, Pearl and D’Amour met with a group of scientists over lunch and asked: “What would be the most important thing you’d hope a piece about the oceans would communicate to audiences?” They expected to hear detailed scientific jargon. Instead, there was a big pause, and one of the scientists simply responded, “Wonder.” They were immediately hooked. “We were like, ‘We got this!’ ” D’Amour says in a joint Zoom interview with Pearl.
”So it set us on this course of wanting to shift perceptions and bring people in intimacy with a place, an entity that they will never really be able to be physically close to,” Pearl says. “How do we build a relationship between people and the ocean? And how do we evoke a connection to this thing that we’ve gotten very used to thinking of as like a vacation, a commodity, a surface, a holder and receptacle of things, a problem.”
Set inside the chamber of a global governing body, the play revolves around the debate over a bill designed to shrink the Earth’s oceans “into a more manageable (and marketable) collection of inland seas.” Rising sea levels have already reshaped many of the continents and their coastlines. So the leader of this confederation of countries, Mr. Majority, “argues for human ingenuity, the power of the human mind to fix things,” says D’Amour. “He’s very invested in humans saving the Earth for humans.”
With the floor opened for debate, the Ocean arrives to speak in its own defense. “The character of the Ocean, or O, comes out of a trickster archetype,” D’Amour explains. “The Ocean is wise and wry and kind of badass and isn’t afraid to toy with Mr. Majority. It isn’t afraid to use human language and seduce us with pop songs, seduce us with stand-up comedy, to be bold and use all the human tricks to grab our attention and win the argument.”
Earth’s oceans are essential for human life. An estimated 50-80 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere is created through photosynthesis by phytoplankton in the ocean. The oceans, via that phytoplankton, process and absorb huge amounts of the carbon that’s emitted through human activity. Excess carbon is also stored in the deep oceans.
”So we started to think about the ocean as human enabler, that it’s hiding the full impacts of climate change from us and hiding the ways we are out of balance by taking in and transforming a lot of carbon,” Pearl says. “But it can only take in so much before things start to change. It allows us to continue our bad, self-destructive behavior without really being negatively impacted by it.”
The initial seed of the filibuster grew out of the collaborators thinking about the Ocean getting so fed up that it “just started talking and didn’t shut up until it was heard,” Pearl says. The duo were inspired by former Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis’s 13-hour filibuster of a Texas anti-abortion bill in 2013, pushed on by crowds of shouting and chanting protesters in the gallery.
Having one actor embody both Mr. Majority and the Ocean serves to underline the interconnected nature of the relationship between humans and the ocean. “There’s this conflict in the play between the individual and ecosystem,” D’Amour says. “Mr. Majority is advocating for the individual, but the Ocean is like, ‘Can’t you see we’re all connected?’ ”
For Kidwell, embodying both roles also reflects the idea of having “opposing value systems exist in one body. To me, that just resonates with our experience of being human. I think it’s such a radical thing because it feels dangerous for us to embrace contradiction, to acknowledge how opposing viewpoints can actually be encased in one neat carcass.”
D’Amour says she’s most excited for audiences to experience the pageantry of the piece. “The spectacle of it takes audiences on a really beautiful, wild ride.”
“Ocean Filibuster” features music and songs by longtime PearlDamour collaborator Sxip Shirey; sound design by Germán Martinez; abstract video projections by Tal Yarden; and an interactive intermission with hands-on, self-serve stations in the lobby. At one point, a six-person ocean choir emerges in costumes bedecked with headdresses created by designer Olivera Gajic. (“It’s like Mardi Gras meets most bold runway moment in Fashion Week,” D’Amour says.)
When they realized that a real filibuster can actually be dull, they connected with Shirey, “who can make the phone book interesting,” D’Amour says. Shirey, an experimental, object-oriented composer who creates music using bells, bowls, pans, breath sounds, water sounds, and instruments including a resophonic guitar, a slide whistle, and a shruti box. For the show’s chorus, he employs a medieval choral technique called hocketing, in which singers pass musical tones and phrases back and forth in a flowing river of melody or rhythm.
”There’s a lot of technology in [’Ocean Filibuster’], in the videography, sound, and lighting. But in the end, it’s really about one really amazing actor and singers telling you a story,” Shirey says. “It’s the most primal form of theater and it’s the most avant-garde form of theater at the same time.”
Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through March 13. Tickets from $25. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.