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Last year stands as the third-warmest on record since humans began recording global temperatures. It also witnessed one of the most destructive Atlantic hurricane seasons in recent memory. Scientists attribute all of this, largely, to man-made climate change, and yet many Americans refuse to believe climate change exists — let alone that humans are its root cause.
One reason for our head-in-the-sand attitude might be that climate change is too enormous to fully grasp; it involves too many data sets, and presents a future almost too apocalyptic to believe possible. That makes artists, novelists, and playwrights crucial to the climate discussion: They can shape numbers and charts into narratives starring relatable, real world–adjacent characters that experience just how devastating climate change can be. A new genre — called climate fiction, or “cli-fi” — has emerged in recent years to address these stories, and its latest addition, a play called Extreme Whether, by Karen Malpede, is running now at La MaMa in the East Village.
Uneven but well-intentioned, Extreme Whether is, at base, thematically interesting: Two climate scientists, romantically involved, are bullied into keeping their research quiet by a married couple representing the fossil fuel industry. Mostly set in 2004, just prior to the George W. Bush–John Kerry presidential election, the play makes somewhat clear that even fourteen years ago climate news only rarely penetrated the national consciousness; one of the scientists, John Bjornson (Rocco Sisto), seems convinced that the public revelation of his research will break through the noise and influence the outcome of the election. What’s less clear in this production is whether we are supposed to take his naivety entirely seriously. In 2018, hindsight is perhaps more than 20/20: No scientific paper from the time would have carried the kind of power John expects.
More puzzling is Malpede’s decision to frame the play as a family drama. Set not at, say, a climate convention, but on a plot of remote family land, the drama feels removed — literally and figuratively — from actual policy debates. That feeling is compounded by the fact that scientist John is twin brother to Jeanne (Dee Pelletier), one of the energy reps. As their feud grows more heated — by the second act, Jeanne and her husband, Frank (Khris Lewin), achieve villainy of ludicrous proportions — the central thematic issue gets diffused by the possibility that the sibling characters’ differences of policy might just be rooted in troubled family dynamics. That comes off as a grand misstep in a play written with the intent to stir audiences to action. (Malpede, who also directed, notes in the playbill that she hopes Extreme Whether will inspire us to “come to our senses,” and a representative from the People’s Climate March Steering Committee joined a talkback after the performance I attended on March 3.)
To round out the family drama, Malpede gives us grizzly old “Uncle” (George Bartenieff), an early-wave environmentalist prone to rapturous speeches and reveries about the land, and Annie (Emma Rose Kraus), John’s intersex teen daughter who befriends a deformed frog. Said frog performs much symbolic work: Its deformity was caused, Annie surmises, by its polluted pond, and yet he manages to live a full frog’s life once she takes stewardship of the water’s fragile ecosystem. Annie’s frequent comparison of the frog’s deformity to her own intersexuality, suggesting that both are mutations caused by humanity’s mistreatment of the planet, reads more like an oversight on the part of the playwright than anything intentionally offensive, but it plays as dated nonetheless.
The actors seem to have been directed to perform big, with emphatic movements and shouting. Such heightened performativity works during climactic moments but is mostly at odds with the play’s aspirations toward realism. Pelletier, however, is convincing as Jeanne, a sister conflicted by feelings of love for her brother and abhorrence at his politics. And as Frank, Lewin pulls off the impossible: wringing moments of real human reaction and behavior out of a cartoon. His coal-loving industry dude with rifle always in hand becomes literally rapacious by the second act, yet Lewin’s realistic, bro-ish body language renders Frank’s monologues among the play’s most believable — which is technically impressive, if not ideal for a work of climate activism. Neither Bartenieff’s Uncle nor Kraus’s Annie demonstrate emotional range, but neither do their lines — the actors work well with what they were given.
Another performance highlight is Clea Straus Rivera as Rebecca West, the Arctic ice scientist romantically linked to John. Rebecca’s sweeping gestures communicate passion for both her lover and her work, and her fear and anger are palpable in her most pivotal scenes. By comparison, Sisto’s John is generally stilted, though his scenes with Rivera are touching. But these actors get lost amid the play’s confounding set, which both never changes and changes repeatedly. John and Rebecca’s living room occupies one half of the stage; a pond and a tree marking the apex of the family plot fill the other. A slamming noise signifies the house’s front door, but that door’s precise location confusingly shifts with every coming and going. (When it came time for Annie to say goodbye to her beloved frog by its pond, I at first thought they were burying the animal in the living room.) Gaffes like these can frustrate, but, even despite these flaws, Extreme Whether lands on an ideologically noble side of history. I hope it inspires other playwrights to take up the cause.