Climate Terrors: “The Last Catastrophist”

Evelyn Holley as Marina and Shanelle Chloe Villegas as Lucia (L to R). Photo by Paul Fox.

Presented by Fresh Ink Theatre Company
By David Valdes
Directed by Sarah Gazdowicz
Dramaturgy by Sarah Schnebly
Fight choreography by Marge Dunn

January 24 – February 8, 2020
Plaza Black Box Theatre
Boston Center for the Arts
Boston, MA
Fresh Ink on Facebook

Critique by Kitty Drexel

Boston, MA — The opening of The Last Catastrophist last weekend coincides with a news update that the current president is going to repeal Obama era environmental protections for streams, wetlands, and groundwater. Repealing these measures is a step backwards from preventing the devastating effects of climate change on US lands. What small matter is clean, public drinking water so long as his precious golf courses are green? One can’t possibly spend one of every five working days golfing on his private business without golf courses greener than envy.

Water is life.

The Last Catastrophist by David Valdes is a glimpse into a highly likely future in which climate change has drastically altered Earth’s ecological composition. Capitalism is in its last stages; human life is cheaper than ever. The rich (whom we should eat) retain their crippling control of the climate-change-denying US government through a lethal conspiracy organization called Eternal Sunshine.

Lucia (Shanelle Chloe Villegas) is one of the last scientists still researching and sharing the information she’s gathered on the cataclysmic effects of climate change. She has traveled to the barren landscapes of Iceland to find her colleague Marina (Evelyn Holley). Lucia carries news about their shared future. The women can either work together to save what’s left of the planet or to turn their backs on science in order to survive Eternal Sunshine

The Last Catastrophist is an exercise in Greek tragedy. Emotional content is played to the audience and the explosive action sequences with panic-inducing chase scenes happen offstage. This means we aren’t introduced to the show’s antagonists.  We see the raw doubt between Marina and Lucia develop into a riveting professional trust as they traverse Iceland.  Through the staging of Gazdowicz and the portrayals of Villegas and Holley, we come to care about these opposing characters. The stakes are hoisted high as our compassion for them grows.

Holley and Villegas have excellent chemistry. Holley inhabits the thick, stoic skin of climate pessimist Marina. She’s as fierce as a polar bear, the straight woman to Villegas physical comedy.

Shanelle Chloe Villegas as Lucia and Evelyn Holley as Marina; Photo by Paul Fox.

Villegas plays Lucia as a bright, expressive optimist who hasn’t had her soul flayed by hardship. Her faith in doing what is right annoys Marina but bolsters the audience against depression.

Marina and Lucia are two sides of a necessary coin. Inexhaustible hope without a firm grasp of reasonable expectations (or vice versa) will burn a person out. Conviction cemented in both are needed to fight the war against climate change.

Marina and Lucia are the only two characters we meet in this production. They have one cell phone with crappy service in all of Iceland with which to connect with the outside world. They can’t know whether Eternal Sunshine has tapped it. By isolating these characters, Valdes forces the audience to focus on the dialogue. We are isolated in our thoughts. We must choose whom to believe. The room filled with tension as The Last Catastrophist reached its climactic ending.

The staging involves a lot of walking back, forth across the set and then behind the audience. It is repetitive because walking through a snowy wasteland at the end of the earth is repetitive. Lucia and Marina wear multiple layers of heavy-duty, winter weather coats, boots and snow pants. Thanks to the efforts of the actors as well as the design team, the constant walking isn’t visually redundant. One could see how mishandling of this staging could make it boring. Fortunately, Villegas and Holley imbue their characters with such life that we are compelled to watch them.

Lighting designer Read Davidson recreates the northern lights with the resources available in the Plaza Theatre. By reflecting pink and green lights off the black box walls, we recognized the flickering aurora borealis before it was named in the dialogue. Volcanic vents glimmered on the floor with the aid of gobos. These visuals gave the audience the pushes it needed to believe that we were see overwhelmed scientists and not adults playing a childhood game.

Sound designer Vinny Laino captured the frustrating crunch of boots scrabbling on deep layers of snow. Water softly gurgled and the volcano scene crackled like a robust fire. When boots weren’t tramping across the frigid landscape, the whoosh of filtered air bustled about the theatre. The black box was warm on Saturday night but it sounded like the vast emptiness of nature petrified into stillness by deepest winter.

The Last Catastrophist is a heady show. It discusses with unflinching clarity the consequences of humanity’s impact on the Earth. There were several moments when my companion and I couldn’t help but relate to the helplessness of the scientists. Sometimes it feels like there’s nothing we can do to stop an impending climate catastrophe. A story like this reminds us that we aren’t resisting alone.

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