Saturday, May 11, 2019

9 (2019-2020): Review: THE RARE BIOSPHERE (seen May 10, 2019)

“Sophie’s Choice”

As probably any microbiologist can tell you, and as Wikipedia reveals, “the rare biosphere” is a reference to “diverse rare species of bacteria, adapted to environmental conditions that are not common today.” Chris Cragin Day’s topically vital, and frequently engaging, 90-minute play of that name uses the term metaphorically to celebrate the importance of diversity and to question the policies of our federal government (ICE, in particular) with regard to its inhuman treatment of illegal immigrants and their legal families. 
Natalia Plaza, Zac Owens. Photo: Sea Dog Theater.
While avoiding polemics, The Rare Biosphere examines these policies on a microcosmic scale. It uses a single example of a family affected by ICE’s policies to show just how painful they can be. There’s no question that, for theatrical purposes, it softens the blow with regard to just whose life and circumstances it chooses to present. On the other hand, it’s impossible not to leave the theatre wondering how to fix our horrifically broken system.

The situation is simple: 17-year-old high school senior, Sophie (Natalia Plaza), is the American-born daughter of an undocumented Honduran couple who work at a local laundry, in Raleigh, NC. She’s an extremely serious student who dreams of being a grad student of microbiology at Duke. She comes home one day to find her parents gone, only learning after some effort that they’ve been arrested by ICE in a raid and are currently in detention in Ohio. She’s been left as the chief caretaker for her two younger siblings, one an infant we often hear crying from offstage.

Smart as a whip but also fearful of creating further difficulties, she struggles—as per a contingency letter left for her by her parents—to keep her crisis secret. However, another student, the nerdy but sweet, responsible, and devotedly churchgoing Steven (Zac Owens), who has a crush on Sophie, soon realizes what’s going on and does all he can to help resolve it. Sophie’s parents, having foreseen such an emergency, have paid the next month’s rent, and left some cash. After that, it’s anybody’s guess.

The basic action concerns how Sophie and Steven, with barely any adult advice, try to resolve the situation, hashing over the various possibilities: Quitting school and working to support her siblings? Foster care? Returning to Honduras? Borrowing money? And, given how desperate they are, perhaps they might even . . . well, I’ll leave that one for you to discover.

The point is that the options available to people in such circumstances—even with support groups, including their places of worship—are extremely limited. You’ll probably be uncomfortable with Sophie’s choice but Day suggests it may be the only one she could reasonably take.

When you think that such tragedies occur daily in countless variations—like the much-discussed separation of children from parents at our southern border—you may want to scream. Even if the government is within its rights to arrest undocumented immigrants, no matter how upstanding, God-fearing, or valuable to the community, does it really have to do so by leaving their children behind, without a word of notice or a means of support?

What if Sophie were not a brilliant student, was much younger, physically or mentally handicapped, unable to work, or otherwise in serious need of her parental support system? And what of her even younger siblings, for whose care she’s now responsible?

The only screaming in The Rare Biosphere is from the offstage infant. Sophie and Steven, while showing the usual tics associated with adolescent behavior, are quite mature and intelligent; although frustrated, and occasionally argumentative, they manage to maintain their equilibrium better than would many adults. Both Natalia Plaza and Zac Owens are truly convincing as the kids struggling to handle such a complex dilemma.

In fact, because she’s writing a play, not a political treatise, Day has crafted what is also a teenage rom-com revolving around the virginal Sophie and Steven’s emotional awkwardness as they grow fonder of one another. When sex enters the picture, however, it’s quickly dismissed because they’re saving it for marriage.

This idealistic (and mildly comical) relationship, as well as the continual reminders of the thematic connection to the actual and metaphorical biosphere, tends to tamp down the impact of what might otherwise be far more tearjerkingly powerful material. A fantasy scene with magical lighting (by Guy de Lancey) and sound (by Tye Hunt Fitzgerald) is momentarily interesting but inessential and distracting.

Christopher J. Domig has directed The Rare Biosphere for a small company called Sea Dog Theater, whose “mission is to tell stories of alienation and reconciliation. Every play we produce,” reads their mission statement, “explores how we are both alienated from ourselves, each other and life’s meaning, while also striving for reconciliation, often in strange and mysterious ways.” Their home at the moment is a general-use auditorium in the historic (built 1848) Calvary Church on Park Avenue and E. 21st. Street, near Gramercy Park.

The room, arranged in the three-quarters-round for around 50 spectators, provides an expansive space (with high ceilings creating an acoustical echo) whose rear wall is an actual kitchen, its wall opened so we can see inside; it’s perfect for a play set in a kitchen and living room.

Guy de Lancey’s set proper is little more than a Formica table, a mismatched set of kitchen chairs, and a small couch. Only when a couple of scenes are performed at a library desk set in a corner of the auditorium, forcing theatregoers to crane their necks, does the arrangement fail to work. Those scenes are also too rapidly raced through to allow the ironic counterpoint between the actors, one reading microbiological facts, the other immigration laws, to fully register. On the other hand, the pace often bogs down for the prop shifts necessitated by the episodic structure.

The Rare Biosphere, imperfect as it is, deserves attention for attending to so critical a social and political problem. As the program note says, the play “doesn’t offer solutions or take sides”; it simply reminds us that people are being affected and that something must be done. It remains to be seen if the theatre has a role to play in continuing the debate.  

Calvary St. George’s Church
61 Gramercy Park North, NYC
Through May 19