La MaMa Presents EXTREME WHETHER, A Cli-Fi Play By Karen Malpede

By: Feb. 01, 2018
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La MaMa Presents EXTREME WHETHER, A Cli-Fi Play By Karen Malpede From March 1 to 18, La MaMa will present Theater Three Collaborative in a new production of "Extreme Whether," a "Cli-Fi" play written and directed by Karen Malpede. The piece juxtaposes psychological and magical realism in a tale of a courageous climate researcher who is defamed by special interests, including his own family. Obie-winner Rocco Sisto heads a cast of six.

Set during the record-hot summers of 2004 and 2012, the play pits a scientist named John Bjornson (Rocco Sisto) against his twin sister, Jeanne (Dee Pelletier), in a no-holds barred struggle over land ownership and the future use of their family's wilderness estate. The sister is an energy spokeswoman and is married to a climate-skeptic lobbyist (Khris Lewin), who helps strategize her actions. The siblings' dispute reveals the fault lines in America today over land usage, global warming and climate denial. Supporting John's struggle for the land are three people. One is the caretaker of the estate, an oracular, Thoreau-like man named Uncle (Obie-winner George Bartenieff). The others are John's precocious 13-year old intersex daughter (Emma Rose Kraus) and a young ice scientist with an important new theory (Clea Straus Rivera).

"Extreme Whether" was developed by Theater Three Collaborative, in a series of readings and workshops at The Cherry Lane Theater, Columbia University, the NY Horticulture Society and Theater for New City in 2013-14 and was subsequently performed in Paris, as a part of ARTCOP, the series of arts events surrounding the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21). There were three presentations in Paris that year, one in the French translation of the play, and two in English, organized jointly by Theater Three Collaborative and Cie De Facto, a rising French-Swiss theater company with the support of the Rockefeller Bros and Prospect Hill Foundations, and in conjunction with Le Pave d'Orsay and Les Fondation des Etats-Unis. The artists of "Extreme Whether" were in the company of hundreds of arts and activist groups from many nations and continents, including indigenous peoples and representatives from island nations. All were there to publicly appeal for holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as opposed to the original proposal of 2 degrees. When the climate accord, signed by 198 nations, ultimately ratified the more ambitious goal, it was enormously encouraging to these citizen-and-artist-activists. The play's growing reputation led to readings in India and Denmark as well as U.S. readings in Tennessee and Oklahoma. The Oklahoma reading led to the casting of Emma Rose Kraus, a Tulsa actress, for the La MaMa production as John's precocious 13-year old daughter, who raises a frog which has been mutated by exposure to the herbicide Atrazine.

The producers feel that, as opposed to 2014, when climate change was more "theoretically" foreseen, "Extreme Whether" is now a play whose time has come. "The play is no longer bringing the news," says playwright Malpede, "it is only reflecting it."

Playwright Karen Malpede is known for fearlessly addressing urgent issues in every play, from genetic engineering (in "Better People") to the U.S. torture program (in "Another Life"). She views Global Warming and its facilitator, Climate Denial, as paramount issues and admires the courage of scientists to speak out and guide us. To bring these issues to the stage, she adopted the Ibsenist paradigm (seen in "An Enemy of the People" and "Rosmerholm") of setting struggles of the public interest as conflicts within a family. She considers that in many ways, the play is a psychological drama of a dichotomy among American people. On one side are those who believe that the science of climate change should drive public policy. On the other side, we see those who believe that fossil fuel extraction should continue to drive the economy and are viciously defensive. In their view, if climate change is taken seriously, free market economics will be threatened. Both positions resonate in the psychological reality of the characters.

The characters and plot of "Extreme Whether" are informed by the books, lives and research of several contemporary scientists. The character of John Bjornson is largely based on Dr. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who testified to congress in 1988 that global warming had begun. Other influences are the life and work of Dr. Michael Mann, author of "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars"; Dr. Jennifer Francis, a researcher on the rapidly melting Arctic ice and its effect on the elongation of the Jet Stream; and Dr. Tyrone Hayes, a researcher on the effects of the herbicide Atrazine. For further information on these sources, please see these author's notes by Karen Malpede:

In the play such extreme weather as we are new experiencing, such as this January's long cold snap, is explained. Because of the melting of the Arctic, the Jet Stream becomes weakened, elongated and stuck, so extreme heat, cold, rains and drought tend to hover longer than usual. This is the theory of John's protégé, the young ice scientist named Rebecca. Her idea is so threatening that her academic integrity is impugned and she is blackmailed and sexually shamed by John's sister and her husband. Her theory was originally advanced by Jennifer Francis, one of the scientists whose research contributed to the play.

This production of "Extreme Whether" reflects La MaMa's commitment to artists who address issues of climate and sustainability. Addressing a symposium on Theater & Resistance at CUNY's Segal Center on January 12, 2018 La MaMa's Artistic Director, Mia Yoo, affirmed affirmed the theater's intention to create public discourse on these issues and to provide a platform for artists to express their social bravery. She also emphasized La MaMa's pioneering efforts to connect artists here and abroad on related issues through its Culture Hub project. In 2014, La MaMa designated its entire season "La MaMa Earth."

Set Design is by Gian Marco Lo Forte. Lighting Design is by Tony Giovannetti. Costume Design is by Sally Ann Parsons and Carisa Kelly. Music and Sound Design are by Arthur Rosen.

Karen Malpede (playwright, director) is author/director of 19 plays including, most recently "Dinner During Yemen," a playlet written for Kathleen Chalfant for an Evening for the People of Yemen at the Brooklyn Commons in January, and a futuristic drama for the Anthropocene "Other than We", which received its first public reading at the Segal Theatre, CUNY Graduate Center, in December, during a day-long celebration of twenty-two years of Malpede's Theater Three Collaborative and publication of her new book. Other plays include: "Sappho & Aphrodite" (Arts at St. Ann's, Perry St. Theater, Oval House, London; Cleveland Public Theater); "Us," (Theater for the New City, Lusty Juveniles, UK; ShowWorld, Here), "Iraq: Speaking of War," a docu-drama (Prozansky Theatre, Culture Project), "Another Life" (National Theatre of Kosovo, Gerald W. Lynch Theater, Irondale, Theater for the New City, RADA Festival, London), "The Beekeeper's Daughter" (Dionysia Festival, Italy, Theater Row Theater, TNC), "Prophecy" (NY Theatre Workshop, New End Theatre, London). "Extreme Whether" has just been published, with a foreword by Marvin Carlson and afterwords by Alexander M. Schultz and Cindy Rosenthal, in her new four-play volume, "Plays in Time: The Beekeeper's Daughter, Prophecy, Another Life, Extreme Whether" (Intellect, 2017). She is author of "A Monster Has Stolen the Sun and Other Plays," editor of "Acts of War: Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays," "Women in Theater: Compassion & Hope" and "Three Works by the Open Theater." She has published drama, essays and short fiction in The Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Confrontation, Healing Muse, Dark Matter and elsewhere. Her writings on theater have appeared in The New York Times, TDR, Torture Magazine, New Theatre Quarterly, Howelround, and elsewhere. A McKnight National Playwrights' and NYFA fellow, she co-founded Theater Three Collaborative in 1995. She has taught at Smith College, New York University and the CUNY-Graduate Center's Continuing Education program. Currently, she is on the theater and environmental justice faculties at John Jay College of Criminal Justice-CUNY. Her MFA is from Columbia University.

Rocco Sisto (John Bjornson), an Obie-winner for sustained excellence, was last seen Off-Broadway in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Other credits include Playwrights Horizons: "Demonology" at Playwrights Horizons and Broadway's "The King and I," "To Be or Not to Be," "Amadeus" and "Seminar." His Off-Broadway credits include "Old Fashioned Prostitutes," "The Bacchae," "The Winter's Tale" (Obie Award), "Macbeth" (The Public),"Quills" (Obie Award, Drama Desk nomination), "Kaos" (NYTW), "Tis Pity She's a Whore," "Loot," "Volpone" (Red Bull Theater), "Measure For Measure," "Souls of Naples" (TFANA), "Iphinigia 2.0," "Harlequin Studies" (Signature). His films include "Donnie Brasco," "Frequency," "Eraser" and "Carlito's Way." On TV, he has been seen in "Bluebloods," "Law & Order(s)," "The Sopranos," "CSI," "Star Trek T.N.G." and more.

George Bartenieff (Uncle) began his theater career at the age of 14 in "The Whole World Over," directed by Harold Clurman. He has acted on Broadway ("Merchant of Venice," "Fiddler on the Roof"), Off and Off-off, at the NYSF, and regional theaters in hundreds of new and classic plays. He was co-founder of Theater for the New City and co-founder of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. He and Karen Malpede adapted for the stage the diaries of Victor Klemperer, "I Will Bear Witness," as a one-person play that played to acclaim in New York, London, Berlin, Washington DC and toured Europe and the U.S. for three years. He is winner of four Village Voice Obie awards, including Sustained Achievement and acting awards for his performances in Malpede's "Us" and "I Will Bear Witness," a Drama Desk award for the ensemble acting in David Hare's "Stuff Happens" and a Philly as Best Actor for "Tuesday's With Morrie" at the Wilmington Repertory Co. In 1995, he, Malpede and the late Lee Nagrin co-founded Theater Three Collaborative.

Dee Pelletier (Jeanne, John's sister) appeared on Broadway in "August, Osage County." She has appeared Off-Broadway in "Women Without Men," "The Soap Myth," Bug," "Speaking in Tongues," "The Erotica Project," "The Seven Deadly Sins" (dir. Anne Bogart), "Stonewall Jackson;s House" and "The Broken Jug." She has appeared regionally at Geva Theatre, Denver Center Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse, Shakespeare Theatre of D.C., Delaware Theatre Co., Yale Rep, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Indiana Rep, Merrimack Rep and Trinity Rep, among others. She is also active in film and TV.

Khris Lewin (Frank, John's brother-in-law) just closed "Personnel Best" by Pete Holmberg at the Secret Theatre (Roust Theatre Company). Other NYC: Horatio in "Boris Akunin's Hamlet, A Version" (Red Lab/Roust) and "Private Life of the Master Race" (Roust); "Gorilla" (SATC), "Oliver!" (Harbor Lights), "Richard II" (Fight or Flight/Sonnet Rep), "Fêtes de la Nuit" (Ohio Theatre). Regional: "My One And Only," "Something's Afoot" (Goodspeed), "The Music Man" (Ogunquit Playhouse), "Knock! Knock!" (Vineyard Playhouse), "A Steady Rain," title role in "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol" (Marin Theatre Company), title roles in "Cyrano de Bergerac," "Hamlet," "Antonio's Revenge" (TheatreWorks), title role in "Macbeth" (Nebraska Shakespeare). He has also appeared on NPR's "Selected Shorts" and "Bloomsday on Broadway" at Symphony Space. He is a professor at Baruch College.

Clea Rivera (Rebecca, the ice scientist) premiered two solo shows, "Food Of Life" and "No Vacancy," at La MaMa as part of its Poetry Electric series. She has performed extensively in regional theater including roles in "Blood Wedding" (Missouri Rep), "Cloud Tectonics" (Merrimack Rep), "Anna In The Tropics" (Capital Rep), and "Romeo And Juliet" (Denver Center Theatre and Shakespeare and Company). New York City credits include the Women's Project world premiere of Maria Irene Fornes' "The Summer In Gossensass," several seasons with Ralph Lee's Mettawee River Theatre Company, and Jaded Eyes Arts Collective's production of "The Fox," which she also co-produced. She played the title role in the independent short film, "Charlie," which was an official selection of the New Orleans Film Festival.

Emma Rose Kraus (Annie, John's daughter) was born in Tulsa, OK and began acting at age nine with the roles of Woodstock in "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown" and Lucy in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." As a child, Kraus always loved nature and spent many holidays playing outside with the animals on her grandparents' farm in Kansas and, when she was older, learning to ride horses from her uncle. She now hopes to use her position as an actor to continue to advocate for the environment through performance. She is currently enrolled as a student at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha, OK and will graduate this spring with a degree in theater arts and emphases in cultural studies and performance styles. Notable past roles include the Red Head in "The Love Talker", Ginny in "Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche", and Cassandra in "Hecuba." This is her New York debut.

An integral part of New York City's cultural landscape, La MaMa has a worldwide reputation for producing daring work in theater, dance, performance art, and music that defies form and transcends boundaries of language, race, and culture. Founded in 1961 by theater pioneer and legend Ellen Stewart, La MaMa is a global organization with creative partners and dedicated audiences around the world. La MaMa presents an average of 60-70 productions annually, most of which are world premieres. To date, over 3,500 productions have been presented at La MaMa with artists from more than 70 nations.

La MaMa's 56th season highlights artists of different generations, gender identities, and cultural backgrounds, who question social mores and confront stereotypes, corruption, bigotry, racism, and xenophobia in their work. Its stages embrace diversity in every form and present artists that persevere with bold self-expression despite social, economic, and political struggle and the 56th season reflects the urgency of reaffirming human interconnectedness.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Slaff

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