Other Than We: Show Review by Jo Mispel


‘Other Than We’ is a very satisfying cli-fi (Climate-fiction) experience. It is a playful but powerful meditation on some of the more urgent philosophical questions we need to ask as we approach ecological catastrophe. Not just how did we as a species bring this crisis upon our biosphere, our home, but how indeed do we move forward and birth new ways of being that will adapt and recognize our deep interconnectedness.

Written and Directed by Karen Malpede, and performed by the Theater Three Collaborative, she co-founded 33 years ago, ‘Other Than we’ is set in a future a few years after a singularly catastrophic event called ‘The Deluge’. Karen, who has long advocated for ‘a unique theater of witness, eco-feminist aesthetic’, uses this backdrop of scarcity and uncertainty, violence and surveillance, to weave together an essay on consciousness, language, evolution, life, and death. How does life evolve and have meaning in this uncertain future?

Our four characters live a minimalist but gritty existence inside ‘The Dome’, a hermetically sealed space for the privileged few. Outside is a dangerously hot, radiated, denuded, unknown. Donald Eastman’s set design evokes just enough sci-fi grunginess simply using movable platforms of scaffolding. Lacking in warmth and comfort but flexible enough to rotate into different scenes, they carry the play successfully from inside the Dome to out.

We first meet the scientists, and lovers, Eve and Michelle. Eve is a neuroscientist who has been demoted to part-time lecturer, possibly due to her now heretical belief that a baby’s brain will not develop optimally without a carer’s loving gaze and touch.  Michelle, also known as Mick, is a Gynecologist who is finding that the fetuses she is implanting are dying prematurely, with underdeveloped brains. She takes a swig of her bonused bottle of wine and mentions how these ‘failures’ are good for food shortages. Grim.

Into the picture comes a new janitor named Tenaka, a refugee who has gained access to the Dome only because ‘they’ want to study the effects of outside radiation on his body. Issues of access are touched upon, Tenaka useful to the ‘Authorities’ only as a body of measurement and free labor, and Michelle herself only inside as she fought her way in. Tenaka was a physician in his past life and has, after discreetly listening to Eve’s lectures, approached them secretively with a startling proposition. It seems he is on the same wavelength as Eve and Michelle. They all believe the only hope for the future is to evolve a new way of being, a new creature altogether. He proffers that he has a way to advance evolution. He convinces Michelle quickly, that with a simple biological fix, reconnecting something between the heart, gut and head, he can get back what seems to have been lost in a de-evolving brain, namely – empathy and imagination. Interestingly, there have in fact been scientific studies showing that college students as a whole show a lot less empathy than even thirty years ago.

Empathy and imagination. Are these qualities not some of the most important tools necessary to forge some kind of future on this planet? An openness to the unknown others all around us, and the ability to tell ourselves new empathic stories with open hearts and unknown endings?

Apparently, Karen wrote this play immediately after the election of Trump, an event that unnerved so many of us, seemingly so founded on hate and fear of the other. She notes that the work is about the evolution of consciousness but also about what comes next for us as a species and for all the domains on a planet that is an interconnected living system.

Tenaka sneaks a vial of multispecies sperm to Michelle, and the lovers inseminate each other with it. When it becomes apparent that the authorities may be on to them, or Eve’s theories that threaten their ideas of mind control, they need to leave quickly. Eve wants to grab her elderly linguist and social activist grandfather, Opa, apparently modeled on Noam Chomsky. She knows that the new creatures, if they successfully birth them, will need someone to teach them how to think. And as philosopher Donna Haraway would say “It matters what thoughts think thoughts’. At first, Opa, played by George Bartenieff, is horrified that Eve could do such a thing to her body. However, in exile outside the dome with her, he comes to embrace her bigger picture and says: ‘I suppose, that the human capacity for thought must have been tied all along to nature’s capacity to stabilize itself. Perhaps, yes, there was a larger thinking mind at work.’

The four have willingly sacrificed their lives attempting to birth the new. Tenaka had seeded an outside area previously so that foraging wild plants will sustain them before the heat rises. But the radiation, temperatures and lack of food will weaken them quickly. They are parenting the future while facing death. They seem to embrace this, recognizing death’s necessity. Life does not continue without decomposition, we ourselves are also food for future beings. We can not freeze ourselves into immutable objects like pieces of plastic, being tossed about deadened on a deluge of inevitable change. We need to connect closely with what is around us, make new kinships and collaboratives that can move and react nimbly to the substrates we will find ourselves on. We need to die and be born. We need to play.

I love how the four characters, all performed so sensitively, are brought together with love and need. They all have different skills to offer. Michelle, for example, calls herself ‘Mechanical Michelle”. Tenaka mentions that their energy fields connected them. It brings to my mind what physicist philosopher Isabelle Stengers might call her ‘Ecology of practices’. She suggests we need a new scientific commoning, as it will help us re-wild our intellects.

The play questions the origins of language and consciousness. The characters use language in an interesting way, almost talking as one at times, like a hive mind themselves, furthering along a common thought process. But the language they use is slim, impoverished, like their environment. Occasionally the lovers, for example, will re-discover a word, and Eve especially will play with it in her mouth like a new taste sensation. And when Michelle gets outside and discovers the wild edibles seeded by Tenaka, she names them in rush of pleasure like a sudden bubbling brook.

The babies, oddkins that they are, or newbies as they call them, are born. It is intense to see birth reenacted on stage, the animal reality of it, the fear and overwhelming joy. And when one of the hybrid creatures is lost to death, the grief they feel is also acknowledged as a gift of feeling and connection to what is important.

I do not want to spoil the outcome of this thriller of a story, except to say that the poetic transfiguration at the end is a beautiful image of energy forever mutating. The wise old/new creature we depart with leaves us pondering the essential, always open-ended questions, How? What? Who? And, as may be apt in a review of an eco-feminist fable, the quote from author and activist Terry Tempest Williams seems an appropriate summary for this stimulating play: ‘What if our undoing leads us to our becoming?’.

 

The Downstairs at La MaMa (66 E 4th St, New York, NY 10003). Performances run through Sunday, December 1st, 2019. $25 tickets at http://lamama.org/other-than-we/.

The production stars Obie and Drama Desk award-winner George Bartenieff* (Broadway’s The Merchant of Venice, Fiddler on the Roof and Victor Kelmperer in I Will Bear Witness) as Opa, Lisa Birnbaum* (The White Devil, Red Bull Theatre Co; Elizabeth Taylor in Cleo, Alley Theatre directed by Bob Balaban; Sense and Sensibility, Bedlam) as Michelle, and Emily Fury Daly* (Indecent, Pittsburgh Public; As You Like It, American Players Theatre) as Eve and Tommie J. Moore* (Dare to Be Black, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Cowboys) as Tenaka. *Appearing Courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association.

With scenic design by Obie award-winner Donald Eastman, costume design by Excellence in Theater Tony Award winner Sally Ann Parsons, lighting design by Bessie award-winner Tony Giovannetti, sound and music design by Arthur Rosen, and movement by Beth Graczyk. The production stage manager is Alex Williamson, and Carisa Kelly is the associate costume designer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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