The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a tragedy from which we are still reeling. The riverfront and Louisiana wetlands were forever changed. The area’s ecosystem has been seriously compromised and devalued; the fishing and shellfish industries are crippled. However, out of the public spotlight, it’s business as usual spurred on by “the corexit” which dispersed the oil to the sea floor and like magic, “all was out of sight, out of mind.”
Only those who are part of the clean up process: the scientists, the researchers, those working with the EPA, those who live on or near the water and those in university settings familiar with the lasting damage of oil spills and the toxic impact of corexit understand the disastrous consequences that, like dominoes, are still toppling throughout the region. Those folks understand, but their voices have not been heard above the din of other distractions. They understand, and the halt, maimed, blind animals (chemical mutations) and marine life understand. Daily, they have to experience the toxic “corexit correction,” and the complete alteration of their shelters, food supply and way of survival.
Dark Water by David Stallings, directed by Heather Cohn enjoying its premiere at The Theater at the 14th Street Y, takes us back to the initial spill and reexamines the event from the perspective of the animals and marine life. Through them we acknowledge their reactions, their attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, and their hopeful struggle to survive despite the creeping “dark water” which moves toward them in a massive, viscous wave of suffocating, burning death.
Mother turtle Barnacle (a determined Dianna Martin) faces a conundrum. She is with her son Weed, but she has left her babies, Weed’s sisters, on an island in the gulf to keep them safe from the spewing dark water. She has told her children she will come back for them to take them to a better place, but the dark water is consuming everything in its path and she is afraid she will be too late. Barnacle drops off Weed (Chester Poon) on another island that appears to be far from the danger, leaving him with Foam (Erica Lauren McLaughlin). Foam, who has been enslaved by Clam (Susan G. Bob) learns freedom as a result of a loving relationship with Weed. Weed convinces Foam to go with him to find and help Barnacle.
Before and during Barnacle’s and Weed’s travels, Barnacle has to protect her son while confronting predatory, conniving and dangerous enemies whose habitat is being threatened by the dark water. These birds of prey have grown cruelly rapacious and wanton. Gullet (the foreboding and noxious Brian Silliman) and Blue Heron (an excellent Kathleen O’Neill) connive with arrogance, tyranny and presumption. Barnacle remains strong. She endures and outsmarts these and others who plan to either eat her or Weed. Though some animals and marine life have been driven to desperation out of fear of the rapidly moving dark water destroying their food supply, there are others who remain noble and kind. There is the sweet dolphin, Daedalus (a beloved Antonio Minino), and the prophetic Sea Urchin (Emily Hartford) who gives wise counsel to Barnacle. The highpoints in the conflict create suspense. Will Daedalus who must swim through the entangling, engulfing thickness with Barnacle on his back be able to get to the island in time? Will Barnacle find Weed and will they rescue her daughters before they are all suffocated by the slimy, black ooze?
In Dark Water, Stalling’s message and themes are neither preachy nor easily dismissed. His anthropomorphic characters are like us. We are able to identify in his metaphor riot the best and the worst of human traits: maternal and filial love and sacrifice, rapacity, fear, desperation. On the other hand Stallings has found a unique way to differentiate his marine life characters from humans; they speak in verse. These other life forms express their desires, intents, hopes and fears in exacting rhymes. At times the verse is more rhythmic and poetic, at times not and there are no rhymes. His selection rises to necessity depending upon the unfolding action and events. His dialogue versification is interspersed with a few songs, a short dance and a choreographed fight sequence.
These clever devices are packed with meaning and enhance the themes of this parable which is simple, direct and powerful. Stallings infers that though there are similarities between marine life and man, essentially, these other beings which we deem “dumb brutes” who are as “disposable” as flotsam and jetsom, are to be appreciated as beautiful and poetic creatures integral to the loveliness of the natural realm. By having them speak in verse, Stallings’ impulse is to magnify their preciousness and sanctity. For do we not ultimately depend on them for our sustenance? Throughout the play Stallings’ threads the question, “Do we have any idea of what we are really doing when we risk allowing such a disaster?”
Stallings’ choices are stylistically daring and unusually effecting. By the end we realize we are watching in these characters’ struggles for survival something akin to a Greek tragedy and all the more so because they are innocent creatures and have had no hand in what we have done. However, unlike some Greek tragedy, there is no Deus ex Machina (a god coming to the rescue of the protagonist). How can there be when the human “gods” are the executioners? And what they are executing is their own eventual destruction by first harming the creatures that maintain the ecosystems of the planet.
The fundamental theme expressed by Stallings’ title and how the dark water impacts the marine life evokes the symbolism of a darkness that is all encompassing. By extension we understand that this is an amorphous evil represented by man’s primordial lust for profit at the expense of life itself. Stallings ultimately suggests that If we continue to allow such a tangibly felt wickedness to overtake our rationality and common sense, then surely we do not have to fear an apocalypse. It has already happened in the overtaking of the human heart. Unless it is ameliorated, we are dooming ourselves and the fabric of our own culture and environment for future generations.
Dark Water will be at The Theater at the 14th Street Y until March 29th.
Ensemble: Brian Silliman, Dianna Martin, Chester Poon, Antonio Minino, Susan G. Bob, Erica Lauren McLaughlin, Kathleen O’Neill, Lily Drexler, Stephen Conrad Moore, Emily Hartford