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Mr. Chairman? I have an objection to ‘Ocean Filibuster’

Jennifer Kidwell (at the microphone) in "Ocean Filibuster" at American Repertory Theater.Maggie Hall

CAMBRIDGE — American Repertory Theater’s “Ocean Filibuster” is for people who thought “Don’t Look Up” was just too darn subtle.

You know who it’s not for? Anyone who believes that theater should not talk down to its audience.

Now, no serious person can dispute that the global climate crisis is the central issue of our time — a new scientific report from a UN panel of experts underscored that yet again this week — and the ART audience is full of serious people. The theater is in Cambridge, for God’s sake.

So why have the creators of “Ocean Filibuster” chosen to hit that intellectually sophisticated audience over the head for nearly two hours with a relentlessly didactic and preachy allegory about climate change and human-engineered environmental destruction? Who is being educated, or persuaded, by this blend of science fair and secular sermon?


Precious few are being entertained, I’ll tell you that much.

The ART production is a world premiere, “Ocean Filibuster” having been commissioned by the theater in collaboration with the Harvard University Center for the Environment. When coupled with December’s production of the heavy-handed “WILD: A Musical Becoming,” the ART is 0-for-2 this season with regard to global warming parables. (”WILD” at least had the virtue of some captivating songs, which is not the case with “Ocean Filibuster.”)

Jennifer Kidwell, the star of “Ocean Filibuster,” deserves kudos and possibly a medal of some kind for performing so valiantly in the face of material that would buckle the knees and sap the spirit of a lesser actor. Also deserving of praise: Tal Yarden, whose teeming, abstract projection design is a frequently entrancing world unto itself.

That’s about it. “Ocean Filibuster” is the brainchild and handiwork of PearlDamour, a team consisting of Katie Pearl, who directs the production at the Loeb Drama Center, and Lisa D’Amour, who wrote the script. The music is by Sxip Shirey. While not technically a solo show, “Ocean Filibuster” carries the burden of one, because Kidwell plays the two principal roles — “Mr. Majority” and the Ocean — and occupies the center of the action at virtually every moment.


Jennifer Kidwell in "Ocean Filibuster" at American Repertory Theater.Maggie Hall

The former is an officious, Mitch McConnell-ish sort, intoning from a podium in the senate chamber of a governing body called the “Global Federation of Humans on Earth.” Mr. Majority is there to argue in favor of an “End of Ocean” bill that would shrink the ocean into seven inland seas.

Why? Well, he blames the ocean for “unfathomable chaos” that has generated “super storms and mega-typhoons that flatten our cities and our dreams,” as well as wildfires, droughts, and coastal landslides. In an oh-by-the-way fashion, Mr. Majority notes that the restructuring of the planet would “sacrifice portions” of countries like Argentina, Senegal, Malaysia, “and the entirety of Haiti.” (Later, he proposes wiping out “non-essential species.”)

Then the Ocean shows up to defend itself, and to filibuster the bill, and in the process to remind humanity who, after all, is responsible for the warming of the ocean. Soon “O,” as that watery eminence is dubbed, is unspooling an epic recitation of humanity’s debt to it, and correctly assigning responsibility to the planet’s two-legged inhabitants for bringing Earth to the brink, and beyond, of environmental calamity.

In the process O name-checks phytoplankton, photosynthesis, carbonic acid, oxygen, and more, much, much more. “And with each breath, you fall deeper into an intimate relationship with me,” O says. “I’m not being coy; this is just a fact. Fifty percent of that breath, that one you took right there? Fifty percent of it came from me.”


This kind of colloquy-showdown could theoretically generate a lot of sparks. Theoretically. The problem is that “Ocean Filibuster” evinces strikingly little interest in building any kind of dramatic momentum or communicating its ideas in a compelling way. Whenever it threatens to do so, off it goes on another numbing deluge of scientific jargon and precepts, another pseudo-poetic flight of expressive fancy.

Or the production resorts to a cutesy gimmick, such as when O asks the audience to imagine that they have been transformed into baby crabs. In general, there’s an off-putting aura of self-indulgence to “Ocean Filibuster,” an assumption that the audience will stick around, no matter how meandering the proceedings, as in a protracted bit at the top of Act Two.

Climate change is such an important enough issue that it warrants, and will continue to receive, serious consideration by dramatists. But they need to remember that the indisputable urgency of the issue doesn’t give them carte blanche to shortchange art in the name of activism. “Ocean Filibuster” stands as evidence that when a theater wants to put across a message, it helps to be, you know, theatrical.


Directed by Katie Pearl. Created by PearlDamour. Text by Lisa D’Amour. Music by Sxip Shirey. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through March 13. Digital version available to stream on demand March 9-27. Tickets for in-performance and digital productions start at $25 and are available at 617-547-8300 or www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org


Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.