If you’re looking for a well-made piece, if you’re hoping for a completely intelligible storyline, if you want to be able to tell all the characters apart or what their relationships are to each other or where their conflicts lie, if you want every line delivered to convey a meaning clear enough to paraphrase, Caridad Svich Ushuaia Blue, which premiered at the Shepherdstown Contemporary American Theater Festival, is not for you. Playwright Svich is not here to satisfy your particular needs.
What she produced is more like a choral poem in which each speaker contributes to a more or less shared set of experiences and perceptions. The experiences shared are of people studying the ice, flora and fauna of Antarctica largely from the perspective of the nearest continental point, the Argentinian city of Ushuaia. We learn that a young American couple, Jordan (John Keabler), a scientist, and Sara (Kelley Rae O’Donnell, pictured above), a documentary filmmaker, came together to Ushuaia and Antarctica, and shared the stress and the excitements of many the isolation within a small scientific community there, and the larger stimulus of the singing ice, which is continually breaking up due to climate change. We learn that Sara was randomly making a documentary of interviews with Pepa, an indigenous lighthouse keeper from Ushuaia (Amelia Rico), and that she ventures further and further from human habitation to commune with the ice and the sometimes visible creatures where she goes. We learn that an accident happened to her on the ice, leaving her in a coma, and back in the couple’s hometown in the southern United States, their extended family is talking about it. That’s about as accurate as things get.
The dialogue, mostly delivered in clipped sentences that force the audience to rush to make sense of them, is highly evocative but stingy with denotation. On the page, it is presented as poetry, thus:
I could have told you
I was happy
At the edge of the glacier.
The music was amazing.
I wish you could hear it.
deep under water
Off against the ice caps
It was like the whole world was singing.
At first it sounded like a song of deep sadness for a while
This would never be recovered [sic]
But after a while,
As the ice continued to break,
The song became a song of joy
And I knew I had no choice
But to dance.
In other words, this piece is best enjoyed as a lyric poem in which individual characters can figure somewhat, but not to the exclusion of everything else. The lighthouse keeper’s comments are important in this regard, for it is she who articulates what I believe to be the playwright’s closest approximations to a message about the human, their importance and their destiny (the things that conventional drama has evolved to satisfy our curiosity about). Yes, suggests Pepa, we may be on the verge of creating our own extinction, but nature will be up to the job of existing on its own if we humans do our part of the job. Likewise, the play’s experience isn’t overly concerned with the characters and their fates, even that of the comatose Sara – though Svich finally satisfies viewers who might worry about whether Sara will make it or not.
Is this concession enough to satisfy most viewers? I do not know. Imagine going to a poetry reading and discovering that the real deal of the evening is a play; it would be the opposite of Ushuaia Blue live. Some members of the public may be okay with this kind of bait and switch, others may not. So with Ushuaia Blue. But in any case, it must be recognized that while it is certainly a play, it is not quite what most of us mean by reference to a play.
As a play, it’s enjoyable. The performances were all up to CATF’s high standards, and I loved the set and projections, by Jesse Dreikosen and Tennessee Dixon respectively, who, with lighting by Tony Galaska, created a world and mood of fracturing ice while making room for a bed. , a filmed interview with camera tripod and a space for the Greek collective of hometown neighbors, spaces that were all to be used at the same time. The brooding tone was also reinforced by another type of collective, Broken Chord, which provided the compositions.
I found it satisfactory, but individual results may vary.
Ushuaia Blue, by Caridad Svich, directed by Jessi D. Hill, presented until July 31 by the Contemporary American Theater Festival at the Marinoff Theatre, 62 West Campus Drive, Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $38-$68 at https://cloud.broadwayworld.com/rec/ticketclick.cfm?fromlink=2186257®id=29&articlelink=https%3A%2F%2Fcatf.org%2Fbuy-tickets%2F?utm_source=BWW2022&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=article&utm_content=bottombuybutton1 or 681-240-2283 ext. 1. Adult language. All audience members will be required to show proof of their vaccination status and photo ID, and wear a mask when in theater.
Production photo credit: Seth Freeman.