The Ocean comes to its own defense in a new musical that confronts climate change (text & audio)

Ocean Filibuster” is onstage at the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center through Sunday, March 13. An online version will be available to stream March 9-27 and the producers plan to take it on tour.

According to a recent United Nations report, climate change is causing irreparable damage to farmland, cities and coastlines. Environmentalists say getting the public to act on dire news like this is hard, but Harvard University scientists collaborating with the American Repertory Theater believe an immersive musical experience will help.

Ocean Filibuster” stars a bold, battered, billions-of-years-old main character: the Ocean.

“No, I’m not here on behalf of the ocean, I’m not standing in for the ocean,” actor Jennifer Kidwell clarifies on stage early in the production, “I am the Ocean.”

She actually portrays two characters in “Ocean Filibuster” — that immense body of water, and she also plays against herself as a polished politician named Mr. Majority.

Jennifer Kidwell as the Ocean in “Ocean Filibuster.” (Courtesy Maggie Hall)

In the opening scene, Mr. Majority addresses a global senate in a dystopian future. The theater is set up like a government chamber and the audience plays a part in the proceedings. Mr. Majority tells us how superstorms, wildfires and drought have ravaged the planet. Cities like New York and Tokyo are underwater.

“Coastal landslides displacing entire countries, forcing the desperate masses inland, penniless and hungry to start anew,” he says. “When we trace this devastation back to the source, we find ourselves standing on a beach, gazing upon the ocean.”

Then Mr. Majority introduces his solution: an “End of Ocean Bill.” If passed, it would divide the Ocean into seven manageable seas that would create more dry land on the planet. Mr. Majority sells his radical concept through pseudoscience and song.

“No more troubled oceans, only placid lakes and streams,” he belts out, “refineries and wheat fields as far as you can see.”

But the Ocean arrives to defend itself. Kidwell ducks behind the podium for a swift but subtle costume and attitude change. Then she cooly reminds Mr. Majority of their primal relationship.

Jennifer Kidwell (middle of the back row) as the Ocean in “Ocean Filibuster.” (Courtesy Maggie Hall)

Kidwell sings about radiolaria, which are “related to amoebas and live in glass-like shells.” Animated projections of other microscopic organisms and bioluminescent fish swim above the stage, illuminating some of the tiniest casualties of climate change. The Ocean asks us to imagine we’re baby crabs whose shells won’t harden because of ocean acidification. In mournful dirge Kidwell imagines, “The day we woke up to no ocean, the day we woke up to the dry bed.”

Songs like that, along with innovative storytelling, have the power to stir people’s emotions in ways teaching about climate change might not, according to Dan Schrag. He directs the Harvard University Center for the Environment. Schrag and other Harvard faculty members worked with the A.R.T. and performance team PearlDamour to develop “Ocean Filibuster” as a different way to raise awareness.

Andrea Shea, Wbur, 8 March 2022. More information.

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