Mike Bartlett’s drama about a family rocked by environmental catastrophe is staged with an undeniable immediacy by co-directors Hollace Starr and John Perrin Flynn.
By John Lavitt
Venice, California (The Hollywood Times) January 18, 2020 – At Rogue Machine Theatre on Electric Avenue in Venice, the world is coming to an end. The West Coast Premiere of Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes In London feels very much in tune with the zeitgeist of the 21st century. Although first produced a decade ago at the Royal National’s Cottesloe Theatre in England, the play’s forecasting of environmental catastrophes to come and the effects on an extended London family feels contemporary. Indeed, the prognostications of ten years past have become the frightening realities of the present day.
As co-directed by Hollace Starr and John Perrin Flynn, the Artistic Director of Rogue Machine, Earthquakes In London roots its warnings in the travails three adult sisters alienated from their difficult yet brilliant father. Although they love each other, they have grown apart and distant in an age where desperation and rationalization do daily battle. As weariness gives way to distress, the scenes are bolstered by film projections on three walls. The added imagery shows the impact of climate change on the world.
Over the play’s two acts, the connections between the sisters and the reasons for their alienation are slowly revealed. By being rooted in the family drama, the broader theme of environmental catastrophe becomes more accessible. The apocalyptic possibilities are so much more palpable when the stakes feel real.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the production is the casting of the three daughters. Each actor brings a powerful blend of charisma and pathos to their roles. As the youngest daughter, Taylor Shurte dances with a plastered smile on her face in the wake of the coming disaster. Focused purely on the party at the edge of the abyss, she looks to convince the other characters to sign off on her poor choices. Misery loves company, and she believes everyone should embrace her shadowy gospel of drugs and sex. Ultimately, like so many lost souls in today’s world, she feels sadly doomed.
As the eldest daughter, Anna Khaja plays Sarah with a resigned frustration that reflects the feelings of so many people to the global response to climate change. As a former protester turned government minister, Sarah’s efforts to stem the tide of coming disaster feel as sturdy as an umbrella in a hurricane. It’s all too little and too late, and she despairs. Even if a liberal agenda overcomes corporate opposition, little will change.
Moreover, is Sarah fighting against the conservative opposition or the long shadow of her father? Choosing bitterness over his family, Ron Bottita plays Robert as an angry coward, a broken soul with little hope for redemption in the microcosm, and no hope for saving the world in the macrocosm. When their mother died and Robert sunk into his bitterness, Sarah had to pick up the pieces as the eldest child. By focusing desperately on saving the world and worldly success, she tries to ignore emotional failures within.
Although pain is evident in both the stories of the younger and older sister, they pale in comparison to the suffering faced by the middle sister. As Freya, Ava Bogle captures the horrible plight faced by a pregnant woman bringing a child into what feels like a doomed world. Today, how many young people question whether or not it is right to bring a child into this world? Why today does that question and its frightening implications seem so normative?
Such questions lift the story into the category of an actual mythos. The dark, mind-altering journey taken by Freya during the play feels like a modern Greek myth. Whether we picture Clytemnestra as she learns that her daughter has been sacrificed by her husband to shift the winds or Medea as she stands over her children’s bodies with a dagger in hand, the power of the play’s underlying mythology reflects such tragedy. Although there is a kind of fairy tale ending, the naked truth is harder to digest.
Given the heartrending underpinnings of the storyline, how could a mother of two young daughters direct such a play and not be affected? When asked this question, Hollace Starr says with conviction, “As a parent, it’s hard to live in a world where we are faced with an existential crisis. When you consider this dark reality, directing such a play is easier than living in such a world. The play even provides a touch of hope because it feels like maybe it could help.”
On Electric Avenue, in a dark time in American history, when conflict and noise drown out a desperate need for fellowship and compassion, Earthquakes in London offers a kind of artistic consolation. By intertwining the macrocosmic threat of climate change with smaller psychic earthquakes in the microcosm of a family, the play reveals how no one will escape the catastrophes on the near horizon. Perhaps an enduring hope is that such a play can engender not just awareness, but actions that lead to actual change.