PANIC EVERYTHING’S FINE offers catastrophe and coping mechanisms

Photo by Sergei Krishkov

I recently saw Animal Wisdom at the Bushwick Starr, and afterward read Dan O’Neil’s well-written response to the same. Both had me contemplating what a gift it is to be invited to bear witness to an excellently crafted performance, and what care and attentiveness such an invitation warrants. Panic Everything’s Fine by In The Water Theatre Company gave me a similar feeling that the ensemble was handing me my summons to bear witness; to match the energy, focus, and intention that they brought to the performance with an equally considered and active viewing.

Panic Everything’s Fine plays through November 19 at The Tank’s new location on 36th street. In the smaller of their two theaters, the seating is arranged on three sides in a wide thrust sort of orientation. It is intimate. When the actors sweat — and sweat they do — we see every droplet. “A new, devised piece of theatre about catastrophe” is how it is billed, and you could call it an exploration of the butterfly effect on a schizophrenic scale. Clocking in at a little over an hour of performance time, the ensemble stages the collaged story of how one civilian’s actions might ripple outward to literally destroy the world in a shockingly short eighteen hours.

The task they’ve set for themselves is huge, and it’s an occasion the ensemble and director Jonathan Taylor (who recently provided a “5 Questions” response for Culturebot) have certainly risen to in their creation of this racing portrayal of global cataclysm. Upon entering the theater, we see four reporters seated in a row, doing vocal exercises before the news airs. Fake laughter and winning smiles abound, and it occurs to me that these are not just characters preparing for their job, it is also a display of this evening’s performers warming up to prepare for their job. This invitation to see the piece’s four actors this way hints at the many distinct characters they will each assume during the course of the play. First reporters, then a group of wealthy Manhattanites watching the news, then a pair of strangers hearing about the news from afar, and on and on, a series of random individuals and groupings dealing with the news at various moments with varying stages and degrees of grief.

In some ways the piece is a wide-ranging study in this – how can one cope with such unbearable news? A woman (played by Caitlin Lavery) asks the audience the sort of end-of-life questions that might invite closure on a life – a step toward acceptance. “Do you have anything to confess?” she asks. “Any regrets?” “If your person was here, what would you say to them?” In another scene, two brothers (played by Kristian Sorensen and Dante Belletti) bicker back and forth as they host a doomsday-themed podcast, but find togetherness in a heartfelt hug and the distancing thought that someday, another sentient race will discover humanity’s remains. “We will be studied,” they say with measured comfort.

The character we spend the most time with, and the only named character who reappears throughout the piece, is Noah from Yallingup Australia (played by Persia Blue). Early on, she delivers a monologue about numerous animals around her all dying or killing themselves that day. Her speech is carefully choreographed: a hand that mimes a hamster committing seppuku becomes a delicately held tropical cocktail in the next breath. In another section, Blue’s hand moves around the floor and up her body like a swimming fish, a manifestation of her own wandering and floundering thoughts. She talks to us the way one might rehearse a story alone in her room, theatricalizing the elements of a bad today to tell it as a funny tale tomorrow. To remind – or attempt to convince – herself that “all this” is temporary.

The piece is highly physical, and lifts and weight-sharing frequent the physical vocabulary. This is most effectively done in a scene titled, “Seeking Asylum and Refuge.” Silently, in a particular moment of beautiful lighting (designed by Emily Bearce), individuals and pairs made a series of slow crosses from downstage left to upstage right. As they walk, one person carries another, then smoothly glides into the one being carried, and vice versa. Their dogged, deliberate pace suggests that where they are going holds no more asylum than where they are coming from, but they have at least found solace in one another’s still-mercifully-stable bodies.

Toward the end, the news reporters statically and choppily return (via radio perhaps?) to announce that a dancing plague has swept the remainder of the human population. We are given a techno-scored, multi-minute spastic, sometimes synchronized, chaotic movement segment. While mostly a treat to watch, this was the first moment I felt the piece start to fray at its dramaturgical edges.  

The dance does not seem to follow any sort of trajectory, or logic, narrative or otherwise, cycling through choreographed unison, spastic movement, and recreational dancing several times. In addition, it is unclear if the “plague” has set in because the news of global destruction is too much to bear and the dancers go insane to the point of endless dancing, or if it is some sort of intentional coming together to reclaim some final moments before it all ends.

Finally, the four collectively shout and collapse, and it forms a nice return to the piece’s beginning. They hear about the disaster as an ensemble, they move through it as an ensemble, they die as an ensemble. One could interpret their relentless dancing as intentional, and thus see the collective fall as redemptive as they all chose a death somewhat on their own terms.

However, the show goes on for another ten or fifteen minutes, a return to Noah for a third time as she comes to terms with her own imminent end. She, it would seem, is the last human left. She now seems to be talking not to herself but to the countless dead among her, who have departed before her (“How is it [down there]?? […] You owe me a whisper!” she shouts to them, a line that admittedly quite moved me). I felt a number of opportunities for the show to end during this long, final scene, at moments where Noah is at the peak of despair or surrender, but it continues on to an ending point that feels saccharine and heavy-handed, shoving way too much optimism into a play that is, after all, about unprecedented and absolute annihilation. The final moment suggests an escape from “all this”, a way out, and breaks the trapped feeling that Noah’s final moments onstage have otherwise effectively created.

All the time spent on Noah was also confusing: why is this particular character so important? The piece begins with one man, who incidentally causes the rest of the world to collapse, yet we never so much as see his face — he is not embodied by a performer the entire show. So why this sort of myopic focus on one person now – even if she really is The Last One – when there are so many other instances of horror? I am reminded of the woman protagonist in Hiroshima Mon Amour, who repeatedly compares the enormous tragedy of the Hiroshima bomb drop to her own non-life-threatening struggles in occupied France.

Moreover, this lopsided concentration steals time away from some necessary moments of pause, as certain moments throughout the piece do not get the breath they need and deserve. After a simple but harrowing scene with Sorensen, for example, the entire ensemble rushes the stage as soon as he exits. The end of the dancing plague, too, shoots into the next scene without ceremony. Not taking these moments felt like the piece did not want us to bear witness to the numerous lives that were disappearing during this catastrophe, which makes me feel like the entire piece has little purpose or raison d’être other than the premise seeming cool or interestingly spooky.

And I craved more time to, say, figure out what is going on with the comedienne (played by Lavery) telling jokes about heaven and nuns, or the man (played by Belletti) ripping up paper on the ground — which has littered the stage for much of the piece — in apparent frustration. The tactic of shooting the messenger — of trying to stop global disaster by destroying or yelling at or throwing away the pieces of paper that deliver the news of said disaster — is utilized by multiple people use throughout the show, and was a motif I particularly loved. It clearly portrayed the hopelessness that can result from the feeling that one’s anger and desire to effect change has no bearing on any global issue whatsoever. This seemed particularly resonant with, say, the feelings I get whenever I fall down a current event rabbit hole on Facebook these days.  

Somewhat of an aside: I also wondered why we seemed very committed to the Christian view of the end of the world. Some of the characters throughout muse on the afterlife, and it is always the Christian heaven –  nuns and St. Peter and pearly gates, harps, and wings. It felt either a stray thought that led too far away from the rest of the piece, or a missed opportunity to consider other theories of what comes after, to ruminate on the possibility or probability that what comes after is just… nothing.

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