Resign yourself to the influence of the Earth: “Walden”

Gabriel Brown, Diana Oh, and Jenna Yi | Photo: Christopher Capozziello

TheaterWorks Hartford, in partnership with Riverfront Recapture
By Amy Berryman
Directed by Mei Ann Teo
Set Design by You-Shin Chen 
Lighting Design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew
Sound Design by Hao Bai
Costume Designer by Alice Tavener
Playbill is HERE

In-person performances, Tuesday–Sunday at 8pm, now through August 29, 2021. 
100 Meadow Road
Windsor, CT
Streaming, August 15 — 29, 2021
TheatreWorks Hartford on social media: @TWHartford

Critique by Kitty Drexel

HARTFORD, Conn. — TheatreWorks Hartford, in partnership with Riverfront Recapture, presents Amy Berryman’s Walden. It is a play about estranged twin sisters who must reconcile their differing political beliefs with their need to remain connected in a world devastated by humanity-induced climate change. 

In-person performances for Walden continue now through August 29. Walden streams August 15 – 29. Check the tickets website for in-person, at home, or pop-up streaming options. 

Here is the summary from the TheatreWorks website: “In Walden, after returning from a year-long Moon mission, Cassie (Jeena Yi), a NASA botanist, finds herself in a remote cabin in the woods, where her estranged twin sister, Stella (Diana Oh), a former NASA architect, has found a new life with climate activist Bryan (Gabriel Brown). Old wounds resurface as the sisters attempt to pick up the pieces of the rivalry that broke them apart.”

Diana Oh, and Jenna Yi; from the TheatreWorks Hartford Facebook page.

Walden is a science fiction drama. It occurs on Earth at a time after humans have decimated the planet’s resources. Two popular political factions have grown out of this accepted truth: space colonizers and Earth Advocates (EAs are comparable to flat earthers and are therefore gross.). The colonizers want to colonize the other planets in our solar system. EAs want to fix Earth through slow farming, eschewing screens, and patience. Neither faction likes each other much. 

Bryan is an EA. Cassie is a colonizer for NASA. Stella used to be a colonizer but became an EA through her love of Bryan. Even in the future, politics still divide families.

A tangent: If you, like me, are horribly affected by the crimes against humanity occurring in Afghanistan please check out these websites. 

  • International Refugee Assistance Project offers legal resources to Afghans and their community for relocation and repatriation out of Afghanistan.
  • No One Left Behind is working to secure chartered flights and is the key organization helping to evacuate and resettle Afghans in the Special Immigration Visa (SIV) process.

Also, Haiti is recovering from a devastating earthquake. NPR has an article on how you can help.
Please wear a mask when you leave the house, stay home and donate to your local shelters if you need more to do. 

Back to Walden

The streamed recording of Walden is 98 minutes long with bows and credits. It opens on white audience members walking to their seats at RiverFront Recapture in Connecticut to watch the POC cast perform for their enjoyment. 

The sun is past it’s zenith; it is late afternoon and the birds and bugs orchestrate their readiness for night in nature’s colloquial languages of chirps and buzzes. The humans settle into their seats as Mother Nature’s lighting design casts a golden glow around You-Shin Chen’s set. It’s a rustic cottage made of 2x4s, old cooking ware and hope. A garden of edible plants and wildflowers spans around it like a halo. 

Lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew works in tandem with the sun, the moon, and the shadows of the trees. The visuals only get more striking as the sun goes down. Chen, Yew, and sound designer Hao Bai are, to turn a phrase, gilding the lily. Summer in New England is no less glorious because the world is in turmoil.

The cast makes their complicated, estranged characters likeable despite some hardcore political stances. Extremists can be difficult to know; they mistake agendas for personalities, charisma for compassion. Yi, Oh and Brown and the characters they portray grow on you. We can see that these troubled humans are trying to love each other. They are doing their best. One’s best can suck.  

Playwright Amy Berryman uses a good 60 minutes of the play to show and tell the audience that these characters are overcoming tremendous fear and trauma to connect. Unfortunately, by the time we understand why these characters are having such a difficult time, we’ve lost interest in watching strangers struggle. We don’t don’t know what the stakes are so we assume that the stakes are low. Why are we watching Cassie and Bryan discuss home brews? Are they going to open a brewery? I thought this was a play about climate change. It is, but only for 15 minutes at the beginning when we’re introduced to our heroes and again 45 minutes later when the plot finally thickens. That’s too long to make an audience wait.  

(If I, a critic invested in writing a response to support my community, missed something as important as a play’s stakes by watching from home, that should tell video editors what to watch out for next time.)   

The last 30 minutes of Walden are nearly worth the wait. Berryman crams two acts worth of drama into a third of one. Bam, bam, bam: we learn why Stella is so relationship-shy, why she and Bryan are still together, and Cassie’s real reason for visiting. The stakes leap from nonexistent to sky high. It gives one whiplash. When the audience is allowed to recover, the show ends. 

The sound editing on this recording is not intended for laptops. At times it is too quiet. At others it is too loud. A person watching on a laptop at home, like I did, must be ready to change the volume as needed. 

I’m given the impression that this was not the case for audience members at the live performance. Video shows us that they were wearing headphones. We see the audience often enough to know they didn’t also experience sound balance issues. So, if you’re like me and watched from home, the problem is you and not the video. A laptop is accessible but its inner workings may lack the sensitivity for nuanced viewing. Walden was enjoyable but issues like this may make a viewer wary of streaming from home again. 

Tangent 2: I attended Diana Oh’s The Dope North Star Workshop during the quarantine. It was heckin’ cool: intuitive dancing, community energy building, stream of consciousness writing, public oversharing, flagrant acts of artistic support. A++, highly recommended. 

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