New theatre review: The Eco Show

This entry is cross-posted with blogTO.com.

Plays about 'ideas' are tempermental beasts. When a playwright hitches his wagon to some kind of a political or social concept, it often ends up as a very boring show. A play that really wants to tell you something about, say, poverty ends up forgetting about all those other things that audiences actually connect with- story, characters and relationships. A good piece of social or political drama starts with the basics and lets the conceptual implications flow upwards.

So, it was with some trepidation that I went to see Necessary Angel's production of The Eco Show, the latest offering from Toronto's theatrical wunderkind, Daniel Brooks. Based on the title alone, I thought I was in for an environmental screed, a kind of Al Gore meets Hamlet kind of affair. Turns out, Brooks has not only created a remarkably compelling family drama, but also committed one of the most spectacular theatrical fake-outs I have ever seen. But more on that later.

The Eco Show tells the story of a man obsessed with an encroaching environmental catastrophe and how this obsession ultimately affects his family. He is fanatical in explaining humanity's ultimate doom, but totally immobilized when it comes to actually doing anything about it. This paralysis of action is so advanced it has become pathological, confining him to a wheelchair. As he variously lectures and rages about the coming eco-meltdown, his family disintegrates around him. His wife toils in a kind of self-enforced servitude, coming apart under the pressure of an apparently hopeless future. The children are beginning to show both psychic and physical damage, suffering from a variety of unnamed ailments and unable to relate to their parents or the world around them. It's a bleak tableau, and there's a kind of suffocating despair that soaks the entire production.

But oh, what a production. This is an absolutely gorgeous show to look at, thanks to.video designer Ben Chaisson. All three walls of the set are projection screens, and Chaisson uses them to inject startling moments of motion, pattern and colour. The video is truly innovative, the kind of 'multimedia' that many people talk about, but rarely achieve. Chaisson's work is also underscored nicely by costume designer Julie Fox's thoughtful use of colour, and the haunting reverb of Richard Feren's sound design.The final effect is at times breathtaking. No fooling.

The cast of the Eco Show also does a nice job with some difficult material. Richard Clarkin brings a nice level of depth to the father, who could easily come off as screechy and one dimensional. As written, the mother occasionally teeters on the edge of cliche, and Fiona Highet navigates the more maudlin moments and retains her character's humanity. As the couple's children, Jenny Young and Joe Cobden are revelatory. Despite their sparse dialogue, they manage to simultaneously portray the tortured complexity of childhood, neurosis, and familial scarring with disarming frankness. Brooks has heaped subtext upon subtext with these characters, and the actors put it all forward with impressive skill.

Now, about that fake-out. Its name notwithstanding, The Eco Show is not actually about the environment at all. Sure, the environment looms large in the story, and variety of earth, water and air images weave in and out of the action. But, as the play's subtitle indicates, this show is an elegy. Not for Mother Earth, but for the whole way mankind currently thinks about itself as a civilization. Brooks suggests that rapid change and global crises will wipe away all of our carefully constructed ideas about what life is and what we can expect from our existence. Chief among these dying myths is the inevitability of progress, the idea that life will always get better. Learning to live without this hope, Brooks seems to say, may well be the greatest challenge facing humankind. This is much more interesting theatrical territory than an environmentalist tract, and makes for a fascinating 90 minutes of theatre.

The Eco Show continues at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre until June 1. For tickets, call 416 975 8555 or visit www.totix.ca.

Photo: Richard Clarkin, Jenny Young and Joe Cobden. By Andrea Lundy.