REVIEW: Sila at Central Square Theater
Plays about real-life human dramas often plumb deep cultural roots. For the first time in earth’s history, massive climate change is taking place in the presence of a terrestrial species that expresses itself in cultural artifacts. Human activity threatens the natural world, but humans are also able to study and to project the probable outcomes of that activity. Human society will also determine whether the mass extinction of species currently underway will bury it as well.
Chantal Bilodeau’s play “Sila,” which enjoyed its world premiere on April 24 at Central Square Theatre in Cambridge, takes place on the vast tableau of the Arctic, and encompasses an even vaster topic—the very notion of breath (“sila,” in Inuktitut language) and life, as it affects all creatures on earth. A polar bear instructs her offspring in the subtleties of hunting seals as they wander over the ice floes, following the signs of their own constellations and recounting their own stories. The bears are matched by a human family—a native Inuit activist, her daughter and grandson. The daughter is a spoken word poet. Meanwhile, other humans argue about the wisdom of oil exploration in the Arctic.
One of the inspired ideas of the playwright is to show how the fate of the polar bear family parallels that of the human family. Similarly, the adventures of a French Canadian scientist who is chronicling climate change by studying sea ice, along with his Inuit guide, re-enact the stories the polar bear mother tells her child. All, in turn, are threatened by the natural disasters that whip through the landscape and are recounted in their terrible unfolding by two coast guard officers. These many pairings are beautifully acted. There are dialogues in Inuktitut and Canadian French as well as English. This French-speaking reviewer found the Canadian-accented French (spoken by Nael Nacer as the scientist Jean and Danny Bryck as the young Coast Guard officer Raphael) delightful to the ear. Reneltta Arluk as the activist mother Leanna gives a compelling performance as she tries to convince a roomful of bureaucrats of the necessity to fight oil drilling in the artic, miming in her own discomfort the lack of receptivity in her audience. On opening night Jaime Carilllo as the Inuit guide Kuvageegai generated the most laughs with his restrained depiction of native wisdom. Robert Murphey as the older coast guard officer Thomas pulls off some good sparring with the younger upstart Raphael who will soon replace him. Sophori Ngin as the daughter delivers two spoken word poems with great aplomb; it’s also a pleasure to see how spoken word (the poetry is by Taqralik Partridge) is woven into this play about “breath”; it’s one of the many ways in which the playscript works its theme on multiple levels.
Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s imaginative directing, along with the scene design by Szu-Feng Chen and lighting by David Roy brings you into the vast spaces of the Arctic. Billowing floor-to-ceiling white curtains make a screen for projections of the Northern Lights, while they also suggest enormous ice formations and snow; at other times they become a transparent veil before a vast and starry sky, against which stories are told accompanied by shadow puppets. Mythical figures conjured by the Kuvageegai and that also come to life as shadow projections (by Gabreille Weiler) suggest that there is more to negotiating life on earth than human instruments can offer.
The Underground Railway Theater company, which has its permanent home in Central Square and is led by the outstanding actor and visionary artistic director Debra Wise, has previously brought us (along with the Nora Theater company, which also resides at Central Square) plays about Darwin, Einstein, and medical subjects as part of the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT project that seeks to ally science with drama. It is, of course, enormously challenging to bring a topic as all-encompassing as climate change to the stage. This production of “Sila” is true to its name—it will enable each audience member to take a deep breath and to think about his or her role in the earth’s ecology. Like “Brundibar” and “But the Giraffe,” the last plays performed at Central Square, this is a good play for children. The beautiful and expressive life-size polar bear puppets are expertly operated (by Skye Ellis and Theresa Nguyen) and offer the audience the unexpected pleasure of identifying with a species outside of human experience.
Sila plays as Central Square Theater in Cambridge until May 25.
Inez Hedges is an author and playwright whose work has been produced at Northeastern University, where she teaches courses on world cinema and culture.