“The Climate Chronicles” at Incubator Arts Project

Last week took us to the Incubator Arts Project for The Climate Chronicles (through Nov. 19; tickets $20), a new work from collaborators Sean Donovan & Sebastian Calderón Bentin.

The performance tells the story of a group of four climatologists, led by Calderon,  who are preparing to go to a climate change conference in Spain. Apparently they go to a lot of these conferences and are determined to make a better presentation at this one than at previous ones – Tokyo, it appears, was a disaster, despite the luxe accommodations and fascinating cultural activities.

Lightly satirizing the culture of research, conferences and international collaboration, Donovan and Calderon bring the high minded goals and aspirations of the Climate Change movement into a context of four people with interpersonal problems. In this office,  group dynamics, competition, jealousy and dysfunction subvert their intentions and efforts to create meaningful research and advocacy for their stated cause.

Calderon plays the hapless and haughty team leader, Donovan a neurotic researcher. Paige Collette is Donovan’s frustrated and fed-up wife, Hannah Heller the ditzy scientist whose Amazon adventure leads to the loss of her boyfriend and three toes to a school of piranha.

The Climate Chronicles is entertaining, if somewhat familiar. The collaborators’ influences are readily apparent in the structure and staging of the work. I saw hints of Big Dance Theater and Witness Relocation, maybe some Anne Bogart. Surreal dialogue is interspersed with dance numbers, incongruity and non-sequiturs punctuate dramatic moments, mention of a “jaguar” has a double meaning – the car and the animal – and is illustrated with one of the characters moving around the stage like a wild cat. The abstract becomes literal, ideals are subverted to the mundane – no matter how we try to rise above, we are trapped in a world of other people, negotiating interpersonal relationships, playing power games, trying to get along as best we can.

Calderon does a nice job as bureaucrat and team leader, simultaneously pompous and ridiculous. Sean Donovan is one of my fave downtown actors, with his big eyes and lanky body, he always seems a little surprised and freaked out, a little startled by the absurdity of any given situation. And yet he manages to bring a certain emotional realness and humanity to any given situation. Hannah Heller is very funny as the neurotic, doughnut-eating, gossipy member of the team. And Paige Collette really brings it as the spunky dissenter of the group, trying to free herself from her marriage to Donovan, occasionally at odds with the group at large. She’s a fun and compelling presence onstage.

Clocking in at just over an hour – I think – The Climate Chronicles is more like an appetizer than an entree, the collaborators have begun to sketch out some interesting scenarios and work together nicely. The whole notion of Climate Change is not really central to the show – they could have been accountants or anything else – it was really a device to put four different people in a room and see what they do. It is a good frame and provides for some context, but could have been more fully integrated into the piece. They have done a good job of portraying the characters in an economical way – you pretty much know who everybody is and what motivates them within the first few minutes of them being onstage. But they might have gone a little further.

Overall  The Climate Chronicles is a solid piece of downtown theater. It may be stylistically familiar, but it is a good effort from some talented artists. Hopefully they will continue to develop new projects, move forward from their immediate influences and start to find a creative voice that is more singular. I look forward to seeing what comes next!

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