How Not To Save Your World

Photo by Jody Christopherson

The Anthropologists Save The World!, broadly speaking, is a piece about climate change. As though acknowledging the often disjointed nature of any devising process, the piece is broken into three parts that have little to do with one another aside from this overarching theme.

The opening piece is entitled “Lecture.” It begins with a speech by Aldous Huxley (played by an actor conspicuously absent from all press info, the program, and the Anthropologists’ website), who is very specific, controlled, and engaging in his delivery. Occasionally his right pinky comes up to scratch an itch below his right nostril; occasionally there is an odd flash of green or purple lighting or sound effect to correlate with what he’s saying: pigeons cooing, wind blowing. He speaks of the damage we have done to our planet, specifically comparing humans to parasites, but not even parasites that are “sensible enough not to destroy their host.”

This is, as Huxley says, due to a simple psychological fact: that it is “extremely difficult for human beings to follow a course which, though it may be manifestly helpful in the long run, in the short run imposes hardships upon them.” In other words, we are too fond of convenience. Addicted to it, even. This problem is comical in its absurdity—that something seemingly benign like ‘comfort’ becomes diametrically opposed to something ultimate like ‘survival’, and that in this fight the former wins out in us almost every time. What follows in The Anthropologists Save The World! are two emphatic, manic, and heavy-handed illustrations of this idea.

First, a smoking cessation group, who stumble upon Huxley and are quite puzzled by his appearance. They’re a ragtag group of four who are high strung, codependent on each other, and clearly not committed to actually giving up cigarettes. One by one they admit to cheating, before they erupt into a chaotic frenzy, standing on their chairs, bursting into song, loudly expressing torment and bouncing around the stage in various rolls, dives, and tumbles. They quickly and collectively take a sort of sick pride in their inability to quit, abnegating responsibility and insisting on their entitlement to such a vice. They chant “USA!” as they corner Huxley, and the lights fade to black. The environment is not often mentioned—mostly they discuss personal health—but the message is clear: this is one of the comforts that is killing our host, in terms of our own bodies and the planet.

Second, a new scene called “Blackout.” Here a curtain is drawn back to reveal an evocative set (designed by Irina Kuraeva), replete with twinkle lights, painted cloths hung from the ceiling, milk crates and plastic cheeseburgers littering the ground and furniture. Front and center is a stationary bicycle which, it is soon revealed, is providing electricity to the whole place. We are introduced to a host of strange and exaggerated archetypes—the paranoid survivalist, the sanctimonious artist, the hipster techie/journalist. It is unclear what exactly has led put them here, but either the earth is in serious peril or everyone in this makeshift artist-studio-turned-survivalist-bunker thinks it is. There is much talk about the versatility of tilapia compared to the criminality of eating meat, who isn’t puling their weight on the electricity-generating stationary bike, and whether or not the electricity will fully come back: it would seem New York is off the grid.

This discussion comes to a head when the journalist returns with a fabulous booty: contraband from an underground McDonald’s. As before, this group also ascends into a frenzy, their resolve to be good utterly failing in the face of French fries and apple pies and even hamburgers, which the artist—who is also quite pregnant— eats maniacally. She frantically admits to her husband (the survivalist) that she doesn’t see what all this deprivation is for: “What are we even trying to save!?” She needs comfort, and she feels entitled to it when it is clear their efforts are insignificant to the cause at large, when their baby might not even have a working hospital to be born in and when their fellow citizens care more about reviving McDonald’s than addressing the survival of the planet.

The performance style throughout these two pieces often felt histrionic, filled with elaborate gesture sequences and overblown emotional outbursts in otherwise psychologically real(ish) scenes. I admit I found it difficult to understand why they were hyperbolizing individuals who seem to be trying their hardest to make sense of the absurd idea that they need to place the burden of saving the entire environment on their own recycling, vegetarian, carbon-footprint-reducing shoulders.

That said, the final act of Save The World!—labeled as an epilogue—finally got to a place that I found thought-provoking in its perplexity, eerie and weird in the best way. Titled “The Robot,” the cast dons neutral garb and adorns the stage with all sorts of waste—tapestries of plastic, grocery bags on the floor, etc. This piece was devised by the ensemble (“with artificial intelligence,” as the program cryptically notes), and it feels it: they move about the stage as a flock or hive mind, all continually staring down at their phones. They perform bits of ballet, musicals, circus for each other while the others hold up their phones to film. They shuffle around together, laughing, oohing, ahhing, wailing, coughing, yawning, all in slightly syncopated unison in reaction to things presumably popping up on some feed or another. They become lost and momentarily horrified, but soon comforted again by a chorus of personal pings announcing some new distraction.

Out of the three parts, “The Robot” got the closest to a message for me, or at least a stance—exploring Big Tech’s increased atomization and insulation, which creates distance from anything that might compel us to take on the coalition building necessary to combat the worldwide disaster we face. In addition, the piece showed us how tech constantly assaults us with news of environmental disasters every day from within these orbs of solitude, thus furthering the confused ideology that if we just refuse enough plastic bags from the bodega or avoid enough hamburgers, climate change will go away despite large scale efforts to combat it largely falling short.

After “The Robot,” I felt I got to ruminate with the cast and creative team on this perplexing and ultimately unsolved dilemma: What do we do when our foremost means of connecting with the world is 1) eating up electricity we don’t have infinite stores of, and 2) highly divorced from the reality of that world, to the point that often we feel so defeated that there is nothing to do but dive back into that highly mediated and thus ultimately unsatisfying way of “connection”?

The Anthropologists Save The World! runs at the New Ohio Theatre as part of the Ice Factory Festival, through July 29.

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