"Earthquakes in London" Rocks @ Steep Theatre

"Earthquakes in London" Rocks @ Steep Theatre

Theatre review by Kerstin Broockmann

3.5 stars out 4

For any theater-goer who enjoys epic plays about humanity’s inexorable drive to self-destruction, the year is off to an auspicious start, with at least two such epics already gracing Chicago’s stages. The more optimistic of the two is Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London, now in its U.S. premiere at Steep Theatre. Human greed is the cause of the destruction in both plays (the other being Maria Irene Fornes’ What of the Night?). Bartlett’s play is full of insightful ironies alongside desperate distractions, and, ultimately the hope that it offers seems hollow. But the distractions help make the critique of Western society’s acquisitive excesses more palatable, even fun, as the environmental apocalypse draws nigh. Steep Theatre once again proves itself adept at cramming a cast of thousands in a genre-switching three-hour extravaganza onto a postage-stamp stage. The talented cast and full-throttle staging are engaging enough to keep questions about the play’s structure and intentions at bay until the lights come down. After, unless you must be up early the following day, you can discuss the forces that may ultimately lead to the demise of humankind, and who is to blame for unleashing them.

Midway through Bartlett’s cautionary tale, Peter, an awkward but insistent teenager, bums a smoke, explaining that he found out that the body fully recovers from the effects of smoking in just a few years, and he’s young enough that he figures he’ll have plenty of time to quit and undo the damage. This attitude parallels those of the other characters in the play on a macro scale, as they recognize the harm they are causing the Earth, but figure the Earth will be able to recover. As the earth approaches a crisis that threatens humanity (the eponymous earthquakes being a symptom), the characters of the play deal with their own personal crises. Ultimately, in Bartlett’s vision, the earth will have to wait for an environmental apocalypse before a prophet emerges to save the planet and the vestiges of humanity that cling to a tenuous existence. Somehow, Bartlett has taken this global cautionary tale and spun it around the dramas of one multi-generational family in London and the people that share their lives. The plot weaves between the stories it portrays at breakneck speed, somehow finding reasons to throw in several musical numbers, scenes that take place between 1968 and 2525, and a political burlesque. The Earthquakes of London rollercoaster takes so many sharp turns that the unsatisfying lack of concrete solutions is not immediately apparent—and it is a fun ride.

Jonathan Berry moves the chess pieces of the play with characteristic aplomb, unfazed by jumps in time and space, assisted by a cast that is willing and able to pivot on a dime and a design team that allows the action to shift quickly and easily from claustrophobic rooms and offices, to expansive street scenes. Scenic designer Arnel Sancianco, lighting designer Brandon Wardell, and projections designer Joseph A. Burke provide a sleek, somewhat futuristic play space, employing minimal, light furniture that serves to establish scenes including government offices, restaurants, clubs and various outdoor settings. Above the stage is a glowing reflection of the tectonic plates that are shifting under the feet of the characters below. Sancianco’s lighting is saturated and alternates between pinpoint specific to pastoral to pulsing club lights, while the set incorporates upstage panels and multi-purpose, flexible set pieces to allow for maximum momentum. Burke’s projections, though occasionally used to establish a realistic place and time, are often abstract, helping set the tone and connect the spaces. Matt Chapman’s sound design and music range from the playful to ominous.  Alison Siple has created multiple costumes for much of the cast, reflecting the principle’s stations in life (the rumpled professor, the power-suited politician, the carefully careless student, etc.), their time periods (from 1968 to 2525), shifting identities and the coordinated bright retro style that signals the musical numbers. Kat Powers provides the props that keep everything grounded in recognizable reality, while matching her finds to the ephemeral space. Special mention goes to burlesque choreographer Tia Greer for her environmentally-oriented tease.

Though the design elements create a space that allows for the human stories to unfold and the characters to travel in time, it is the nuanced and committed performances of the cast that make this a ride worth taking. At the heart of the sprawling mechanics of Bartlett’s vision is a family torn apart by ideological and personal concerns that mirror the soaring hopes of the human race as well as its self-destructive tendencies. Unlike the teenage Peter, the adults grapple with deciding to take the long view, or to continue the paths that will most likely lead to the demise of future generations. This grappling begins in the past with Robert, who caves to the siren song of corporate profit; changing course, he poisons the family tree with his self-righteous self-loathing. Nate Faust, excellent in a number of roles, plays the young Robert as an awkward, hopeful scientist who is overwhelmed by his growing ties to convention. As the aging, reluctant patriarch Robert, Jim Poole injects just enough regret and self-awareness into his portrayal to avoid becoming absolutely loathsome. Leea Ayers is a striking presence and lends an effusive joy to her role as Robert’s wife. As the older Robert’s caretaker, Mrs. Andrews, Donna McGough is a compellingly laconic foil for Robert. The show belongs to the next generation, however: Robert’s daughters, who are all struggling with their own existential crises. Cindy Marker as politician Sarah finds herself trying to reclaim the person in the power suit after too many years of giving in to political contingencies; while the façade stays firmly in place for most of the show (even in the most personal of moments), the cracks become more and more visible. Middle daughter Freya, pregnant with the next generation and terrified is played with barely contained hysteria buried under ironic fragility by Lucy Carapetyan, who manages to draw the audience into her own version of reality every time she is onstage—a reality which may not be entirely real. As the youngest, Jasmine, Sarah Price masks her lack of direction with spiky bravado. Being at different points in their life journeys also results in the three daughters being on different paths in their relationships. Sarah has nearly alienated her formerly supportive husband, who is trying to find his way back into the corporate world that has moved beyond needing him—Alex Gilmore’s Colin is alternatingly affecting and amusing as he struggles to figure out how to reenter the world that he left, partly to support Sarah’s career, with the assistance of Jasmine, who turns out to be better suited to the task than it first appears. Meanwhile, Sarah has a glimpse of the other side of the fence—the one that does not require pleasing constituents, worrying about the long game or working at monogamy—in the form of the charmingly persuasive Carter, played by Peter Moore. Freya’s husband, Steve, finds himself on a quest to renew her faith in the family they could be, which gives him and the audience plenty of insight into what happened to the sisters; as Steve, Nick Horst expresses Steve’s growing desperation and strength as he realizes that time is not on his side. Jasmine has her own foil in the idealistic Tom, who initially uses her to his own advance his own environmental activism; Greg Geffrard allows his character to struggle with ideals and strategies before realizing his purpose. Amber Sallis, takes on multiple roles but stands out in the role of Peter, a twitchy, awkward adolescent who accompanies teaching assistant Freya into her rabbit-hole of anxiety and ends up being a lot more than he seems. Rounding out the cast are Indra Andreshak, poignant as a long-time employee who finds she has not made much of an impression and ironically amusing as a misnamed retail store worker; Omer Abbas Salem as Sarah’s hilariously unflappable assistant; and Patricia Donegan, excellent in various roles, including a lecturer from a very different future that seems curiously familiar.

Earthquakes in London proved to be a bit unsatisfying. After three hours of time-travel, random musical interludes and discussions of impending environmental doom, playwright Mike Bartlett’s characters end up not resolving much of anything—interpersonal or political—and the audience is left with a post-modern deus ex machina to provide the answers that have eluded humanity. That said, the journey is compelling throughout, thanks to superb direction by  Jonathan Berry, who keeps the action moving while recognizing that what makes us care are the characters, who never get buried under the tectonic shifts of the play. The entire ensemble slips easily between the symbolic and surreal, and the very real characters that are trying to survive their own versions of the apocalypse. Lucy Carapetyan as the prescient Freya is striking, while Cindy Marker’s Sarah affectingly walks the line between the personal and the political. Ultimately, Bartlett’s awareness of the interconnectedness of people comes through in this thoughtful yet propulsive production—no choice does not have repercussions, and healing, while possible, is a hard and often imperfect process.

Earthquakes in London runs through March 18, Thursday, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm at Steep Theatre, 1115 West Berwyn, Chicago, IL 60640, Thursday - Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $10 - $35 and can be purchased at www.steeptheatre.com or by calling 773-649-3186. For more information, visit www.theatreinchicago.com.