CITY SIGHTS: Finding the science-art in New York area art exhibitions
By Julia Buntaine, Editor-in-Chief
La MaMa Experimental Theater Club
New York, NY
Jupiter (a play about power) by Superhero Clubhouse and Kaimera Productions
February 11th-28th 2016
In a small theater in the East Village, a young mad scientist has evaporated all fossil fuels from the planet. All oil wells are dried up, all gas tanks emptied. Hiding out on Jupiter, this mad scientist plays God, convinced of his own belief that this vanishing act was the only way to save humanity from itself.
Jupiter (a play about power), a collboartion between Superhero Clubhouse and Kaimera Productions, and the eighth in Superhero Clubhouse’s “Planet Play” series, is inspired by climate change, energy policy, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Superhero Clubhouse is devoted to creating environmentally-based theater, and works collaboratively with climatologists and others in the environmental policy field to ensure their work accurately portrays the most recent scientific findings.
The play opens with narration from the man on the side of the stage who up until this point has been softly plucking his string instrument. Interspersed with overhead audio of cell phone beeps and other city sounds, the narration sets the stage for a story which begins when the power goes out, and Manhattan goes dark. Flanking the stage are two monitor screens: one counts the amount of energy used during the performance, while the other tracks the amount of time that has passed in the play narrative (which is often much faster than real time).
As time ticks by on the left side monitor, we move from day one to day two, and there is still no power. We hear from our narrator that the trains are down, that phones won’t connect to the Internet, and how there is not a moving car in sight as if all were abandoned wherever they happened to be at a particular, random moment. The people of the USA are told by the President over ham radio not to panic, which is what everyone inevitably does. (Momentarily ripped from the play narrative my mind goes to when Hurricane Sandy hit, and how by the time I went to buy a flashlight in preparation, all that was left were electric tea lights which diligently, if not dimly, lit my apartment for a week.) We enter day three and the water doesn’t work anymore, useless phone batteries are running low, pay phones become a new hot spot, riots are beginning to break out, and the blackout is officially worldwide.
Enter, a man sitting in his underwear on a central stage platform. Drinking red liquid from a glass cup as if it is his only sustenance, this man introduces himself as "Joe." Joe starts talking like one talks in a video confessional; Joe is honest, and acutely self-aware in this one-sided conversation. He slowly discusses his various physical ailments, his weird scars, his phrenology:
“My skull is uneven; if you were to run your fingers over it, you would traverse craters and riverbeds. It gives me solace to think of my head as a planet. Although, not this planet. This one is made of gas.”
As Joe continues his monologue from the far point of Jupiter, we learn definitively that he is the one to blame for the disappearance of all fossil fuels. Sounding like an out-of-touch but ever passionate demigod, he claims he had no choice, that he did it for humanity, so ‘we’ could survive our own irresponsible energy choices. He empathizes with those left on the planet telling them he knows their mouths are dry with thirst, and that they’re scared, but that this decision was necessary, is irreversible, and that they will have to figure out how to live without depending on fossil fuels not in 15, or 30, or 100 years like our environmental scientists and policy makers would have us, but now.
Unsurprisingly, most of what the Earth-woman has to say to Joe is hate coated in flabbergasted exclamations. Joe never argues back, never hangs up, and offers the only thing he can at this point: a listening ear. Following this first call are a series of calls, pauses, monologues, and music-accompanied narrations by the actress and side stage player.
As time passes Joe repeatedly plays the game of Go and every few years receives a call from the same Earth-woman, speaking for all of Humanity, the content of which fluctuates between threats, violent language, and attempts at the kind of forgiveness one gives when one is too tired to be angry anymore. It's year six, eight, fifteen... Joe pleads with Humanity to tell him how they’re adapting to their new circumstances, struggling with the emotional consequences of his world-changing decision and the inevitable loneliness it has forced him into.
Time ticks by. Joe gets older, and Humanity calls less frequently. Humanity is busy, and seems to only call when she wants to taunt Joe. Joe builds himself a robot companion that he eventually murders in a lonely rage, and then reanimates with urgency. The actress playing Humanity is replaced by a brave audience member upon request following a strange, but somehow appropriate, Karaoke duet by the same actress and this audience member, who sang Frank Sinatra’s ever apropos “My Way.”
“And now, the end is near
The new audience actor, now wearing the scarf, reads the part of Humanity diligently from the script he’s handed for the rest of the play.
We reach the year 21 of this story and witness the death of Joe, who threw himself into the gasses of Jupiter when he realized his failure: Humanity had indeed been busy, with carbon sequestration. Humanity’s instinctual drive to use available natural resources for survival, such as capturing the free carbon left in the atmosphere, could not be beat. He is not mourned on Earth, mostly forgotten.
We reach the year 200, and the end of this story. The robot is sitting alone in the hideout on Jupiter, when the phone rings for the first time in a very long time. At the request of Humanity – still played by our audience actor – the robot clears the Go pieces off the board, and exits the stage.
Enter, Humanity stands on the central stage platform, and the time resets to Day 1, Year 0. Lights out.
Like most avant-garde theater Jupiter (a play about power) is a testament to what three engaging actors can do with a handful of props. Unlike most climate change-related art, Jupiter (a play about power) doesn’t fall strictly on the alarmist side of the argument about the state of our planet. Rather, this play asks the question “Should we impose radical societal change for the greater good?” We are left with the distinct impression that no matter the intention, totalitarian decisions can’t be the right way to solve our pending or current climate problems, because in addition to their insane (and high mortality rate) consequences, they probably wouldn’t hold anyways – where there's a will, there's a way to find usable carbon. On so many levels, Jupiter (a play about power) shows us a future we do not want. So what are we left with? A renewed optimism that we do have good judgment, that our slow moving governmental and policy-making machines will enact new sensible laws about how to treat our planet, and faith that we will make the right decisions over time, with enough time to spare.
Jupiter (a play about power) is on view through Feburary 28th. Find tickets HERE.
All images courtesy of Superhero Clubhouse.