The duo quickly turned to the oceans as a subject. The resulting show, “Ocean Filibuster,” receives its world premiere at the Loeb Drama Center through March 13. Featuring a mix of music, sound and video, the play tells a mythological story about a confrontation between the ocean and Mr. Majority, the leader of a world senate, with star Jennifer Kidwell playing both characters.
Early in the show’s creative process, Pearl and D’Amour met with a group of scientists over lunch and asked, “What would be the most important thing you would want an article about the oceans to communicate to the public? ?” They expected to hear detailed scientific jargon. Instead, there was a big pause and one of the scientists simply replied, “Wonderful.” They were immediately hooked. “We were like, ‘We’ve got this!’ says D’Amour in a joint Zoom interview with Pearl.
“So that set us on the path to wanting to change perceptions and bring people into intimacy with a place, an entity that they could never really be physically close to,” says Pearl. “How to build a relationship between man and the ocean? And how to evoke a link with this thing that we have become accustomed to considering as a vacation, a commodity, a surface, a support and a receptacle of things, a problem.
Set in the chamber of a world governing body, the play revolves around the debate over a bill to reduce Earth’s oceans “into a more manageable (and marketable) collection of inland seas.” Sea level rise has already reshaped many continents and their coasts. Thus, the leader of this confederation of countries, Mr. Majority, “advocates for human ingenuity, the power of the human mind to fix things,” says D’Amour. “He’s very invested in humans saving the Earth for humans.”
The floor being open to debate, the Ocean arrives to speak in its own defense. “The character of the Ocean, or O, comes from a trickster archetype,” D’Amour explains. “The Ocean is wise and wry and a little badass and not afraid to mess with Mr. Majority. He’s not afraid to use human language and seduce us with pop songs, seduce us with stand-up comedy, being bold and using all human tricks to get our attention and win the argument.
Earth’s oceans are essential to human life. It is estimated that 50-80% of the oxygen in the atmosphere is created through photosynthesis by phytoplankton in the ocean. The oceans, via this phytoplankton, process and absorb huge quantities of carbon emitted by human activity. Excess carbon is also stored in the ocean depths.
“So we started thinking about the ocean as a human enabler, hiding all the impacts of climate change from us and hiding the ways we are out of balance by taking in and transforming a lot of carbon,” says Pearl. “But it can’t be long before things start to change. This allows us to continue our self-destructive bad behavior without being really negatively impacted by it.
The initial seed of the filibuster grew from collaborators who thought Ocean was so fed up that it “just started talking and didn’t shut up until it was heard,” says Pearl. The duo were inspired by former Democratic Senator Wendy Davis’ 1 p.m. filibuster of a Texas anti-abortion bill in 2013, pushed by crowds of shouting and chanting protesters into the gallery.
Having an actor portraying both Mr. Majority and the ocean serves to emphasize the interconnected nature of the relationship between humans and the ocean. “There’s this conflict in the game between the individual and the ecosystem,” says D’Amour. “Sir. The majority defends the individual, but the Ocean is like, ‘Can’t you see we’re all connected?’ ”
For Kidwell, embodying both roles also reflects the idea of having “opposing value systems exist within one body. For me, it just resonates with our experience of being human. I think it’s such a radical thing because it seems dangerous to us to embrace contradiction, to recognize how opposing viewpoints can actually be encased in a neat carcass.
D’Amour says she’s very excited for audiences to experience the pageantry of the play. “The show of this one takes the audience on a truly beautiful and wild ride.”
“Ocean Filibuster” features music and songs from longtime PearlDamour collaborator Sxip Shirey; sound design by Germán Martinez; abstract video projections by Tal Yarden; and an interactive intermission with convenient self-serve stations in the lobby. At one point, a six-person ocean choir emerges in costumes adorned with headpieces created by designer Olivera Gajic. (“It’s like Mardi Gras meets Fashion Week’s most daring runway moment,” says D’Amour.)
When they realized that a true buccaneer could be boring, they contacted Shirey, “who can make the phone book interesting,” says D’Amour. Shirey, an object-oriented experimental composer who creates music using bells, bowls, pots, breath sounds, water sounds, and instruments such as resophonic guitar, slide whistle, and a shruti box. For the show’s chorus, he uses a medieval choral technique called hocketing, in which singers pass musical tones and phrases back and forth in a flowing river of melody or rhythm.
“There is a lot of technology in [’Ocean Filibuster’], in videography, sound and lighting. But at the end of the day, it’s really about a really amazing actor and singers telling you a story,” Shirey says. “It’s the most primitive form of theater and it’s the most avant-garde form of theater at the same time.”
Presented by the American Repertory Theatre. At the Loeb Drama Centre, Cambridge, until March 13. Tickets from $25. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at [email protected].