Kickwheel Ensemble’s adventure story “PASSAGE: A Climate Change Romance”

“Passage” from Kickwheel Ensemble
Theatre Review by Gail M. Burns

On May 19, 1845 Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin set sail from England with a crew of 24 officers and 110 men. headed for the Canadian artic in search of the Northwest Passage – that fabled waterway across the North American continent connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The expedition was last seen by Europeans among the islands between Greenland and the Canadian mainland on July 26, 1845, and ultimately the entire crew perished from starvation, hypothermia, tuberculosis, lead poisoning (from the improperly sealed canned goods they brought along), and scurvy.

In the modern-day, a yuppie couple, Paige (Emma Dweck) and Todd (Timothy Ryan Olsen), are constantly at each other’s s throats so, at Paige’s insistence, they follow an androgynous guru named Dayle (Amy Brentano) to the Arctic for a spiritual cleansing intended to save their marriage. Dayle’s mantra is “I know nothing. I have nothing. I am no one.” They are supposed to find comfort in discomfort.

The eventual intersection of these two storylines form the crux of PASSAGE: A Climate Change Romance, created collaboratively by Kickwheel Ensemble Theater, which had a five day run recently at the Shire City Sanctuary in Pittsfield. Kickwheel workshopped this production in the summer of 2015 while in residence at the Millbrook School in Millbrook, NY, and have continued to hone it here in the Berkshires.

The photographs of the two public productions show that the company was working in a very different space at Millbrook than the de-consecrated Notre Dame Church in Pittsfield. Millbrook clearly has a well-equipped black box theatre, whereas a performance space has to be carved out of the cavernous sanctuary. The space is also very “live” acoustically, which means that voices and the sounds of movement (and the random noises of an audience) echo tremendously. Having worked in the space before, director Sara Katzoff and music and sound designer Peter Wise have carefully staged this show so that important dialogue and vigorous movement rarely occur simultaneously. The one sound that works beautifully in the space is music. The company frequently sings and it is wonderful.

PASSAGE takes rather a long time to get going, spending too much time on the foibles of Todd and Paige before beginning to integrate the Franklin expedition. Despite repeating Dayle’s mantra that they “have nothing” Todd and Paige have way too much of everything, as 21st century First World people invariably do. The Franklin crew have literally nothing and are rapidly on their way to becoming no ones after their imminent demise. They long to connect with other humans just as Paige and Todd, with all of their electronic devices, cannot connect at all. (It is fun to watch Dayle smash a couple of smart phones with a hammer!)

The reason we need a modern-day couple, of course, is so Important Points can be made about Climate Change. As any playwriting teacher will tell you, if you want to send a message, use Western Union (actually, there is no more Western Union and so this saying is now obsolete, but if you’re old enough, you get it. For you youngsters I will update it to read “If you want to send a message, text.”)

Towards the end of the play Todd and Paige become separated. Paige hooks up with the increasing cannibalistic Franklin party, but Todd finds himself wrapped in kelp communing with a sea otter (and reminding me strongly of C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra), charmingly played by a puppet manipulated by Mia Kang. The otter, and his pups, perish from the effects of ocean pollution and climate change, and that is sad enough. No dialogue on the topic is needed, and yet it is there.

Kickwheel has created this piece collaboratively, which means that each ensemble member is showcased equitably. There is a lot of talent in this cast, and it is great fun to see them each do what they do best. But there are stand-outs. Chris Tucci is dynamic and imposing as Sir John Franklin, even without his pants on (he loses them as soon as he disembarks from his ship), and Kang is just delightful as the otter and in her chorus roles. While there is rather too much of Dayle in the show, Brentano has certainly created a smarmily hilarious character who is fun to watch. Michael Brahce is absolutely mesmerizing as Wilson, the one member of the Franklin expedition other than Sir John who we actually get to know. His acting is flawless and his singing is powerful.

Brahce, Tucci, and Kang, along with Jacquelyn Gianetti and Marcus Neverson as the members of the Franklin expedition faced the additional challenge of performing on the hottest days of the summer in 19th century arctic gear. Costume designer Stella Giulietta Schwartz has done a marvelous job kitting them out in authentic looking clothing, but even on the relatively mild day on which I saw the show (the ONLY mild day the show was up!) they were obviously HOT!

Set Designer Juliana Haubrich used enormous sheets of opaque plastic, hung from high in the sanctuary, to simulate both the look of the unending whiteness of the arctic, and the ominous creaks and cracks of shifting ice. Sadly, I can say little about Tim Cryan’s lighting design since I attended a matinee and it is impossible to black out the Shire City space during daylight.

In researching for this review, I read that the northern route around North America, through the Arctic Ocean, is considered the Northwest Passage, even though, until very recently after the significant polar ice melt, it was impassable during many months of the year. I don’t accept that concept. For obvious reasons, the Northwest Passage was supposed to provide a North American trade route from the Atlantic to the Pacific that didn’t require swinging up through the Arctic. But it is ironic that it is Climate Change that has actually turned this into a viable route.

PASSAGE could use some more work, and I hope Kickwheel finds the time and funding to do it. It is exciting that this run sold out a couple of performances and played to healthy houses in spite of the summer heat and considerable competition for the theatre audience. Berkshire theatre-goers have a broad palate of tastes, honed by the smorgasbord of theatrical offerings from the collaborative and experimental like PASSAGE, to powerful new plays like American Son at Barrington Stage and Theresa Rebeck’s The Way of the World in Dorset, to classics by the likes of Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams at other major companies – and that’s just this season. Keep up the good work, audience members! Keep on supporting a wide variety of performance art in the Berkshires and you will continue to be richly rewarded.

Kickwheel Ensemble Theater presents PASSAGE, created by the ensemble. Directed by Sara Katzoff, music and sound design by Peter Wise, lighting design by Tim Cryan, set design by Juliana Haubrich, and costume design by Stella Giulietta Schwartz. Cast: Michael Brahce (Wilson), Amy Brentano (Dayle), Emma Dweck (Paige), Jacquelyn Gianetti (Chorus), Mia Kang (Otter/Chorus), Marcus Neverson (Chorus), Timothy Ryan Olson (Todd), and Chris Tucci (Sir John Franklin). July 27-31, 2016 at the Shire City Sanctuary, 40 Melville Street, Pittsfield, MA. The show runs about 100 minutes with no intermission.

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