Review: Sea Sick (The Theatre Centre)

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Alanna Mitchell’s Sea Sick opens at The Theatre Centre’s new home in Toronto.

Last night saw the unveiling of Toronto’s newest live theatre venue. When you first step into the Theatre Centre’s new home at 1115 Queen Street West in the former Carnegie Library you can’t help but be impressed. Following a $6.2 million renovation the building has been transformed into a beautiful collection of multi-purpose spaces that can transform from rehearsal hall to exhibition space to auditorium. The entire space feels airy, contemporary and vibrant and is sure to be a major asset to the neighbourhood.

The choice of the show to christen the impressive new venue is an interesting one. The Theatre Centre’s General and Artistic Director Franco Boni returns after a 12-year hiatus from directing to helm Sea Sick, a one-woman show written by and starring Alanna Mitchell. Boni shares directing duties with prolific Toronto theatre artist Ravi Jain.

Mitchell is a Canadian journalist and author who writes about environmental issues. Her work as been featured in the Globe and Mail, CBC Radio and the New York Times, Sea Sick is adapted from her recent book Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis.

What drew me to the piece is my interest in popular science. I grew up watching David Suzuki’s show The Nature of Things and I’m also a huge fan of the television program Cosmos; both Carl Sagan’s original version and the recent reboot hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Great science communicators have the ability to make issues like climate change understandable, relatable and, above all, personal.

In Sea Sick Mitchell takes on the effect of climate change on the world’s oceans, the “switch of life” on the planet. It’s a topic that she has dedicated years of her life researching and writing about. Right off the bat, as Mitchell takes the stage she states that she is neither an actor nor a scientist and that by performing a play she was “breaking the rules” as a journalist.

Mitchell’s style can best be summed up as understated. The show isn’t really theatre in a traditional sense, it’s more of a cross between storytelling, monologue and an academic lecture. It comes across like a long-form TED talk minus the pizzazz.

The production is very sparse; a blackboard, a piece of chalk, a pitcher of vinegar, a conch shell and an iPad that doubles as a keyboard are the entirety of the props. Subtle music and audio cues designed by Tim Lindsay smooth over the transitions and lighting design by Rebecca Picherack shift with the tone of the story. For a piece that’s essentially a lecture it actually feels a bit over-produced except for the lack of visual aids; some photos would’ve really helped to make the piece more engaging.

What largely redeems the piece to me is Mitchell herself. The soft-spoken, mild-mannered, diminutive journalist is just so dang likeable. As she delivers her narrative you begin to feel as if you’re getting together with an old friend and listening to her tell you her story over coffee.

While she weaves together personal anecdotes about growing up in the Prairies with academic discourse on ocean pH levels, she is most engaging when she is at her most genuine. Mitchell’s story about her journey 3000 feet under the surface of the ocean onboard a research submersible and the mix of wonder and sheer terror she experiences is a highlight of the show.

While climate change can be a political hot-topic Mitchell is careful to avoid being didactic or alarmist, maybe a little too careful. I couldn’t help but feel that the end resolution of the piece was a little bit of a cop-out. Regardless, if you’re at all interested in the topics of climate change and the impact it has on the ocean you might want to check out Sea Sick for yourself.

Details:

  • Sea Sick is playing from March 19 – 23, 2014 at the The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen St. West)
  • Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
  • Tickets $25 – $30
  • Tickets are available online at ticketwise.ca or by phone at 416-538-0988. For more information visit theatrecentre.org.

Photo of Alanna Mitchell by Chloë Ellingson.