Depicting the apocalypse on a shoestring budget hardly sounds like an easy task; there is no room for elaborate computer-generated visuals, epic soundtracks or any of the usual bells and whistles that Hollywood typically associates with the end of days. Yet this is precisely what director Emily Ciavarella ’13 and her acolytes did this weekend. Armed with a script, 30 hours of rehearsal and 50 dollars, they put on their very own rendition of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Boom in the Director’s Studio of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance. As part of the theatre department’s StudioSeries, the minimalist production of this dark comedy about the destruction of the human race highlighted the value of this innovative program.
A word should be said about the StudioSeries itself: Designed to simulate the conditions actors will most probably encounter as they begin their career in the performing arts, it asks directors to put forth proposals that will bring a play to life with very few means, placing the emphasis on deliberate planning and clever management. “We knew from the beginning that we had limited resources,” Ciavarella said. But it turned out that the time limit was the most challenging: “Sometimes you get a navel-gazing effect when you have too much time, and you run the risk of over-rehearsing; in this case we knew we had to get it done.”
As a result, the production was smart, direct and purposeful; the set was composed of a simple platform with only a few pieces of furniture, all painted in bold, solid colors. The props were utilitarian slabs of cardboard fulfilling their function as signifiers quite tidily, just like the sound cues and lighting. In the words of the director, “The innovation had to come from the designers. With such limited resources, it’s really important to have a design that can create an entire world.” Therefore, since the summer she had been collaborating with Ashley Meczywor ’13, Tallis Moore ’14 and Sarah Sanders ’14 as her respective light, sound and set designers, with Emily Loveridge ’14 on the sound board. According to Ciavarella, this team contributed greatly to the artistic drive of the production and helped her come to terms with the imposed limitations.
In a sense, the choice of play, as well, was quite appropriate for the nature of the StudioSeries. The play is set entirely in a sparsely decorated underground lab inhabited by Jules, a seemingly deranged marine biologist (Robbie Amster ’14), and the cynical, misanthropic college student he has lured there, Jo (Jenni Ginsberg ’13). After his universally criticized research in fish behavior leads him to believe that the world is going to end, Jules decides to take matters into his own hands. He puts out an online advertisement for “sex to change the course of the world” to which Jo responds, in hope of finding some redeeming aspect to the human experience after only endless disappointment. She fails to understand how literal he is being: Where she expects only the punctual gratification of a no-strings-attached sexual encounter, he has planned the “date” precisely so that she arrives only moments before an incoming meteor erases all life on earth, leaving only them to perpetuate the human race.
The near-incessant conflict between these lone survivors constitutes the first layer of the humor in this piece; it becomes quickly apparent that the two are quite possibly the worst couple one could have entrusted with the survival of mankind. Jo is an abrasive, angry youth with no hope for humanity, who despises babies and shuns intimacy. On the other hand, Jules is in many ways a take on the archetypal mad scientist: Goofy, innocent and relying entirely on reason, he’s planned out their entire lives together without taking her much into consideration. In addition, he’s neglected to consider that his homosexuality might get in the way of his plans. Amster and Ginsberg gave a hilarious portrayal of this unlikely duo as they come to terms with the end of the world.
However, a third character adds a layer of complexity to the narration; a seemingly invisible bystander, Barbara (Rebecca Shoer ’13), sits to the side of the set and watches on. As the story unfolds, she begins to act upon it: She stops time to provide her own commentary, make small talk and emphasize dramatic moments with percussion instruments. As time goes on, her role becomes increasingly apparent. A life-form millions of years into the future, she curates this exhibit which, in fact, describes the origin of her species. With this in mind, her contribution becomes that much more comedic, and the absurdity of the situation is made clear and her inadvertently humorous comments begin to take over the plot. As she stops caring about the scientific exactitude of the story and rather focuses on the emotional impact, the play takes a late turn towards the serious, questioning the purpose of existence for its own sake.