BWW Reviews: It's a Winter Wonderland at Underground Railway Theater's SILA
Who says arts and academia cannot work hand in hand? Isn't theatre one of the best ways to reach large groups of people and enact change? So why not teach lessons about issues of science and environmental awareness within a theatrical piece? Recently, I've been hearing rumblings about theatres moving in this direction. And last night, I had the pleasure of attending a production of Sila by Chantal Bilodeau produced by the Underground Railway Theater in conjunction with the Catalyst Collaboration project at MIT.
This production, which centered around issues of climate change, respecting and protecting different cultures, and raising awareness of social and environmental issues, took place in a frozen tundra. I am always impressed by the versatility of the Central Square Theatre and once again was mesmerized by the designers' ability to transform the space. Giant swaths of white fabric hung in glaciers from the ceiling, the floor was speckled blue and ivory, icicles hung in the background, and everything was icy white. The set, designed by Szu-Feng Chen utilized a variety of layers, allowing for a world that dipped back and forth between normal everyday and a mythical, spiritual existence.
For me, the best part of the entire production was the lighting design. Created by David Roy, the constantly surprising lighting effects dramatically changed the scenery and the action. I cannot imagine that a show that takes place in the Arctic, and including a blizzard, could be very easy to convincingly light, but I was taken along on a wild journey and believed every minute. Everything looked like water and ice, shining and glimmering in blues and greens. The Northern Lights appeared right in front of my eyes; this natural mystery harnessed and controlled. And backlighting and shadow puppets were used to continue the story all over the walls. I was blown away by how many colors, shapes, and intricacies there could be in a world of all white.
Equally impressive was the use of brilliantly sculpted and maneuvered puppets. The piece switched back and forth between the realism based plot line concerning legislation and family matters and science, and a storyline circling around nature and polar bears. Two of the main characters of the piece were, in fact, bears, represented by massive actor-controlled puppets that were very reminiscent of War Horse. The larger bear was controlled by three actors: one (Skye Ellis) who did the majority of the body movement, one who controlled the hind legs, and one who moved the bear's head and spoke with their voice. The smaller was controlled externally by a single actor. These bears, designed by David Fitcher, were beautiful and realistic interpretations of these majestic creatures and were designed in a way that the actors could maneuver them and really make them come alive. It was lovely.
In fact, I enjoyed the bears' storyline the most. Played by the stunningly grounded Sophorl Ngin and the refreshingly youthful Theresa Nguyen, these bears had so much heart. The varying vocal and physical maturity of each bear was so clear by the actors' mannerisms and their story itself was the most heart-wrenching. That's not to say the human actors didn't hold their own as well. Ngin doubled as a first frustrated and then broken mother and performed spoken word poetry pieces that were powerful and hard hitting. Nael Nacer, as a flustered genius scientist that switched between English and French without so much as a breath, had brilliant comedic timing, but also was so remarkably present during more emotional scenes. I quite enjoyed this versatile cast.
My biggest critique is with the story itself. The mythological and nature based elements were spot on and I was very effected by the cultural importance of the piece. But the realism based story was remarkably heady and while I appreciate the playwright giving the audience so much credit, I think there was a lot of assumed knowledge. I feel as though science can definitely be made understandable and universal, but I don't feel it was in this production. Even something like how much of other languages was used and not translated is great, but the audience misses entire lines. I know there was a lot of information to present, but I found myself disengaged during the science centered bits. And because there was so much of the political and the scientific, I felt as though the personal story needed more development. I was blind-sighted by plot points that I think could come more naturally with a little more focus on that side of the story. I much preferred the emotional and cultural parts of the piece.
I think combining science and art is such an amazing concept, as theatre has the ability to reach so many people, but the trick is finding the correct balance between the heady and the emotional. I think Sila has its flaws, but for the most part, I was blown away by the beauty of the piece. It was a topic I knew next to nothing about and I'm proud to say that's not the case anymore. And most importantly, his show tells a crucial message and does so in one of the most beautiful environments I've seen. It really was a wonderland.
Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian; Scenic Design by Szu-Feng Chen; Costume Design by Albulena Borovci; Lighting Design by David Roy; Sound Design by Emily Auciello; Puppet Design by David Fichter; Properties by Joe Stallone; Master Puppet Building by Will Cabell; Co-Puppet Direction by Debra Wise; Dialect Coaching by Liz Hayes; Dramaturgy by Downing Cless and Alyssa Erin Schmidt; Spoken Word Poetry by Taqralik Partridge; Stage Management by Dominique D. Burfort
Sila runs through May 25th at the Central Square Theatre. For more information and for tickets, visit www.centralsquaretheater.org.