Review: Hearts Ablaze in Harrison David Rivers' ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT WILDFIRES

By: Oct. 13, 2017

When you walk into the depths of a forest, you have quite the metaphor of life at your fingertips: trees that have stood erect and strong for years without end, the starry sky above and the serenity which compels us to question our meaning in this place of perpetual greatness. A place that has remained an unchanged, trustworthy source for all those seeking refuge from the reality beyond the trees, yet also one which ironically brings out the magic of those same lives we are compelled to bring with us. A place that is as strong as the love we harbor for another, just as pure as a tree seedling planted long ago - a tree that, when set aflame by human hands, destroys much more than itself.

The peace of what was and always has been is shattered by the careless hands of a single woman, upset with the world because it has made her less stable than the trees she has adored her entire life - a forest that once protected the magic within her heart, now burned to the ground. Now in performances at Teatro Círculo, Only You Can Prevent Wildfires, from its plot to its direction, is nothing short of brilliant.

Written by Harrison David Rivers, conceived/directed by Sherri Eden Barber and presented by Ricochet Collective, Only You Can Prevent Wildfires celebrates its World Premiere by bringing the true story of forest technician Terry Lynn Barton and the Hayman Fire of 2002 to audiences in a rather unprecedented way. In what is both as surreal as the imagination running rampant beneath a star-infested sky and as visceral as the cold truth (and consequences) of human emotions, Wildfires depicts the reasoning behind a distraught woman's actions in an incredibly graspable manner.

Was it Terry Lynn's choice to burn down such a large part of Colorado, or was is simply an accident? How can such a seemingly inexcusable action be understood enough - and not just understood, but empathized with - to be pardoned in the eyes of another? By putting audiences in the literal midst of a forest ridden with the good and bad humanity has to offer, Wildfires gathers all that we are to explain just why we are and how, like a decimated forest, we must be forced to change what we thought would always be there to guide us.

Only You Can Prevent Wildfires starts the moment the audience walks into the theater, hearing the crunch of mulch and broken branches beneath their feet as they approach their seats. The smell of smoke is in the air, and all around you are age-old trees that loom in the distance, accompanied by the wildlife beyond and the calming hue of the night sky above.

The show then begins with the end: an explanation of how a letter given to Terry Lynn by her ex-husband John (a letter whose contents are unknown) was found, forgotten, at the bottom of her purse and later burned in the middle of the forest. She thought it was extinguished, but her actions lead to a massive fire which destroyed much of Colorado and created the first investigation for newly employed Investigator Kim Rogers. Kim, who is having troubles of her own with her girlfriend Kai, is unwavering in her duty to find out the exact motive behind Terry Lynn's actions. Yet, as not only facts but the emotional reasoning behind Terry Lynn's actions are revealed, what was once an unquestionable duty becomes an emotional trap for both women; what was once a place of refuge, as strong and reliable as a tree, is tainted by a love that burns as quickly as the paper which destroyed it.

Wildfires is one of the best off-off Broadway shows I have seen to date, as there is so much that is just all too real happening that cannot make audiences simply sit passively and watch. I so enjoy a show that knows exactly how to not only stir (more like unravel) the emotions within each of us, but also makes audiences question what is hidden beneath the hard truth of the matter, and whether reality is open to interpretation. And what better place, what better starting point than a forest, where everything simply exists as it always was only to be marred by the humans who once sought existential refuge within its surroundings. It truly becomes a surreal place that teeters on the edge of the dream-like and tangibly real, and the cast and crew of Wildfires both physically and mentally brings this out in such a fascinating way.

For example, there are a lot of plays on action within this production. We first meet Kim and Kai in the tense aftermath of Kim's nightmare, a scene that is filmed while it is happening and projected onto the back wall in somewhat of a reality-show fashion. By offering the audience the chance to either watch what is happening with the added drama of a video recording or through the emotionally charged means of live actors, our emotions are played with based on how we react to what is given (much like the characters we soon come to know all too well). Another scene depicts Terry Lynn falling and being caught over and over again by Smokey the Bear, as she speaks about the tumultuous condition of her marriage - a visual representation of those emotions coming to fruition, making it more real but also slightly more absurd than people are used to seeing. By providing these different platforms from which to see the ordinary is something I so loved about this production, and something which complements the plot all too well.

Not only this, but the actors are phenomenal. There is so much rage, so much that is stored within us and just needs a means of being released, it creates such a charge that is universally felt throughout the performance. It is all so real, so from the gut that when these characters feel any sort of emotion, everyone in the audience can imagine feeling the exact same way; we can imagine ourselves acting the same way given the circumstances. Everything from the music to the changes in light makes you feel like you're interrupting this microcosm of existence, only to remind yourself that the show compels you to be as much a part of it as any one on that stage, sharing in the existentialism of existence and the reality of our own sense of being. How else can an audience empathize with a woman who burned down an entire forest - something so harsh and irreversible - unless we could understand what she was thinking? Just a combined effort of cast and crew alike made this one happen seamlessly, and this is not something every show can easily boast of.

Much credit must go to this cast, comprised of Meryl Jones Williams, John J. Concado, Drae Campbell, Mikaela Izquierdo and Adam A. Keller, and to the crew: Artistic Director Brandon Pape, Caitlin Bailey and Ali Perkins (Choreographers), Clifton Chadick (Scenic Designer), Stephanie Levin (Costume Designer), Serena Wong (Lighting Designer), Mark van Hare (Composer and Sound Designer), Joey Moro (Projection Designer), Elizabeth Ann Goodman (Stage Manager), Shalyn Clark (ASM) and all others not mentioned!

So, only you can prevent wildfires, but life is ironic and our rationale tends to flee from us when we need it most. Human beings are flawed, but this production truly puts the ball back in our court.

Only You Can Prevent Wildfires began performances at Teatro Circulo (located at 64 East 4th Street) on October 7th, and will continue thru October 28th. The show schedule is as follows: Thursday thru Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 7:00 pm; an additional performance will be held on Monday, October 23rd at 7:00 pm. Tickets are $25 ($20 during previews) and are available online at Brown Paper Tickets or by calling (800) 838.3006. The show runs about ninety minutes long without an intermission.

Enjoy the show!

Photo Credit: Jody Christopherson

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