Local Review: Virginia Stage Company’s “I Sing the Rising Sea”
October 4, 2016
I drove home from this play in the rain. It’d been raining for the past few days, and it turned out we had a few days more before we got any relief from the pressure systems fighting above our heads. My neighborhood, like many in this area, floods.
As I drove home from this show, gauging the depth of the puddles with what has in 10 years become an expertly developed eye, and then walked through 6 inches of water on the way to my front door, it dawned on me that with all the hypothetical pasts and futures in VSC’s I Sing the Rising Sea, it is missing the real drama of the present – the social and financial impact of what our state has come to call “nuisance flooding.”
The author and cast are not familiar with flood parking, nor do they have a rain route. The characters don’t bring multiple pairs of shoes to work in plastic bags, or know when high tide is out of force of habit. They don’t deal with totaled parked cars, leaking buildings, or cancelled events. They don’t miss work because they can’t leave their house, or sit in a parking lot with complete strangers for three hours because the water rose while they were in the grocery store, spending the next three hours talking with and reassuring a grandparent that her grandson will be fine at the school even if she is late for a pickup, because the teachers there can’t leave either.
There is little mention of the frustration of hearing the people of your country and your state telling you that what you are experiencing isn’t real, and isn’t a problem, and where it is mentioned, it is glossed over. There is real drama in sea level rise in Hampton Roads. I Sing the Rising Sea, which has been largely billed as a musical about sea level rise — in press releases, VSC’s season announcement, and in all talks of the musical since the author worked on VSC’s Frog Kiss in 2012 — contains none of that drama.
But if you aren’t looking for a political statement, or even a story about climate change, what you have is a well-written, sea and science-themed love story that spans generations. Perhaps it should be billed as something closer to “Science: A Love Story.” Quite honestly, that’s still pretty epic.
Playwright Eric Schorr does a fantastic job of weaving a tale that ranges from the 1930’s to the 2040’s, spanning multiple generations and multiple families, and slowly weaving the threads for an intergenerational drama. I usually try not to “book report” my reviews.. however, since this play is a world premiere, I will try to sum it up without spoiling anything.
In the future, the last house has finally been taken by the sea up in Ocean View. Prior to the house being taken, a box is found in the floorboards containing letters in Japanese. The owner of the house, Granby Jr., a biologist, then heads to his job in Antarctica for the summer. He winds up conveniently camped next to another scientist, Ruth, a paleoclimatologist (I found this word on a NASA website, so it must be a real thing, right?) who happens to also be able to read Japanese. Over the course of their summer, they share dinners (mentioning once that the ice melting in their research sites is kind of inconvenient), and learn more about the mysterious author of the letters, and the life of Granby Jr.’s great-grandfather, Granby, described by Ruth as the father of climatology, who had far more connections to famous people than his grandson ever imagined. Flashbacks to Granby’s time as a child with a job in Ocean View running errands for a flagpole sitter (it was the 30’s, humans were weird, and that was actually a thing that people did) who has some “radical for the time” (aka, not racist) views on segregation, start him on a path to see the world. He becomes the first voice who, like the Lorax spoke for the trees, instead spoke for the Chesapeake Bay, the world’s oceans, and every living thing in them. We, however, instead of looking at his work, get to take an in-depth look at his love life.
As a romantic story, this play scratches every itch you would expect a romantic story to scratch, while managing to balance science and art. The beginning plays a little awkwardly like a NOVA documentary (which, though basic, was to my knowledge scientifically accurate) interrupting a musical. The first song could use a little tightening up — either the musicians were waiting on the actors to finish their monologues to continue the song, or the actors were saying their lines too fast, but something wasn’t timing out. Once the play gets going it starts to flow more, with much of the science/art blend landing most visibly in the songs, e.g. “The Power of Atoms,” “The Learned Astronomer,” and “Continental Shift.” (Honestly, if they were to put this on Spotify, I’d follow it.) In his curtain speech, when discussing the relationship between science and art in the play, Director and VSC’s Artistic Director Emeritus Chris Hanna said that the play “reminds us that historically, that conversation didn’t used to be so separate.” I put this quote here, because he #nailedit, and I couldn’t say it better myself.
There isn’t really a stand-out cast member, which speaks to the strength of the ensemble, most of whom play their characters at a variety of ages from the 1930’s though the 1990’s. Special note should be given to local Governor’s School for the Arts student, Tavon Olds-Sample, who is perfectly capable of holding his own with the professional Equity cast. We should all be proud to have such talent coming out of this area, and look forward to seeing his professional growth.
The first adjectives that come to mind when I think of Blair Mielnik‘s set are smooth and flowing. Arches that resemble at times ice, curtains, and waves create a fantastic canvas for Shawn Duan‘s projections, which do the main work of setting the scene. Some of the past scenes happen right on top of the tents and props for Antarctica’s present, and yet that was less distracting than it sounds like it should be. The projections ranged from realistic video of waves at the beach, to a more animated style for future Antarctica, which is less icy than you might imagine it to be these days. Victor En Yu Tan‘s lights worked beautifully with the projections to set locations, which must have been a challenging project, and it was quite well done. Although a few times actors were in a bit more shadow than might have been preferred, or not quite in their spotlight, there were no issues that brought me out of the story, and the actors seemed to adjust to their mark quickly enough.
Jeni Schaefer‘s wide range of costumes were, as usual, executed perfectly and really helped set the time period for each scene. Martha Goode created a beautiful soundscape (if the audience had been more quiet before the show started, between the projections and the sound, it would have been quite a relaxing beach experience). The sound system in the theater itself left a little to be desired, however. There were a lot of hissing and ringing “S” sounds at the beginning of the play, and although I could hear everyone, which is wonderful, they sounded amplified (and although I know this is sometimes necessary to balance with the band, it sounded a bit odd in such a small space). A few of the mics were also cutting in and out in Act 2, and there were some audible issues with the large winter coats rubbing on the mics in the Antarctica scenes. Again, nothing too distressing, but I typically expect more from Virginia Stage Company when it comes to their production values. Hopefully things will improve once they get their own space and equipment back.
Finally, I’m going to push up my glasses by the bridge of the nose, and mention the only other two things that bothered me:
1. At some point, Ruth mentions that they never get up to “Hurricane Ruth.” I’m guessing we can forgive her, since she lives in 2047, she must not know that Hurricane Ruth rained down in the Pacific in September of 1967, reaching Category 3 status before fizzling out.
2. Once, and only once, in the future Antarctica scenes, someone mentions that life was so much more exciting before there were chips embedded in everyone’s skulls. It was a throw-away line that happened quite quickly, so I think a good portion of the audience missed it. But it really made me want to know more about this future world and how it works, because otherwise it doesn’t seem that much different from the present.
All in all, VSC’s long touted climate change musical isn’t about climate change, but you shouldn’t let that stop you from enjoying the ride, because the show stands in good stead as a musical romance. It is a tad long, running around 2-1/2 hours, so I was glad I saw the 7pm showing on Tuesday. It didn’t feel that long, however, and I can say that I was entertained for the entire time. I expect that as the show run continues, some of the speed-bumps I have mentioned here will iron themselves out. There isn’t much time left (besides our current #whatareyousinkingabout conditions here in Hampton Roads – the play will close soon), so if you are in the mood for a cute romance with a bit of historical depth, catch it while you still can.
BA wishes to make it known that she has spent the past five years obsessively absorbing NOVA documentaries about Antarctica, and that she has, at the behest of her editor and under duress, excluded a wealth of related information that she has been told was “extraneous” to this review, such as the fact that scientists at the south pole – even in summer – sleep in tents for no more than a few days at a time. (There, BA. Happy now?)
I Sing the Rising Sea runs thru Oct. 9 at ODU’s Goode Theatre. Tix $30 – $55 (depending on when you go and where you sit). Buy ‘em here, or call the box office at (757) 627-1234.
Oh! And watch the teaser trailer, featuring the inimitable vocal talent of Samuel W. Flint.