From a balcony above, we are looking down on the sand. Bodies of varying ages, sizes, genders, and ethnicities are soaking up the sunshine on this crowded beach where people apologize when their badminton shuttlecock falls on an unsuspecting stranger or an errant beach ball goes astray.
It is the jam-packed setting for the climate change opera Sun & Sea by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė now playing at BAM Fisher.
While the image of a theatrical indoor sandy beach drew me in to see the show, a casualness in its execution became its undoing.
Using a mix of professional singers and locals cast as beachgoers, the show gives off an organic, immersive vibe (though the audience is not literally in the mix—we are masked and ensconced in the balcony overlooking the unmasked adult beachgoers and masked kids on the beach). A woman lying on her back on her beach blanket sunning herself in a bathing suit will launch into song without moving a muscle. Everyone around her just keeps up their conversations, unphased by this happening. The music operates mostly as internal monologues either from individual characters or the group at large.
The libretto threads together issues of climate change, travel, relationships, work, danger, drowning, extinction, global trade, youth, aging, volcanos and the future. The themes and narratives return. Characters reoccur.
A man whose flight was delayed due to the Icelandic volcano tells us of the romance he starts while waylaid. A woman shares a story of her ex-husband who died in a swimming accident. A wealthy family enjoys a vacation to the Great Barrier Reef. A workaholic sings of exhaustion, lava, and mammoths.
But while the songs are sung, the beach is throbbing with beach “business.” People are on their cellphones, applying sunscreen to each other, walking their dog, catching some rays, reading a book, eating snacks, and digging in the sand (the children, not the dog). People go off-stage and come back wet and towel themselves off. In this relatively small space, there’s so much happening it becomes a bit of a maelstrom.
Without careful choreography, this improvised “just do your thing” on the beach starts to take over the whole show. The singers proceed with their purpose, but the rowdy beachgoers kept pulling my focus. At one point a particularly chatty young boy just kept raising his voice so he could be heard over the opera singer near him. In a battle of lung power, you’d be surprised who won.
Maybe from a higher vantage point, or if it were a larger room, or if the background activity was a skosh less, it might have been easier to tune some of this out. Maybe if I wasn’t currently a Geiger counter of human proximity after so many months of pandemic isolation, I might have also had a more relaxed lens on people just vibing. But the idle chitchat and hum of stage business was like radio static just itching at the edges of the music. It kept centering itself in my line of vision and I could not shake it.
As the beach business appears to be improvised, perhaps another audience on another night would experience something different. Maybe less shuttlecocks.
The work asks the audience to think about climate change in an intentionally overbright, cheery format, with a soft undercurrent of environmental dread swimming beneath the surface. The music is mostly lighthearted in tone, with the thematic issues tucked in carefully. One song is simply a litany of complaints by one woman on the beach which begins “What’s wrong with people?” but is also about the larger problem of humans generating garbage. Another deftly and succinctly gets to the heart of globalization and its environmental impact in 9 lines.
For me, the most potent song was one sung by twin teen girls acapella about replication and 3D printing. It slyly suggests using a 3D printer to bring back loved ones who have died and animals going extinct. It created melancholic poetry about death, permanent environmental loss, and a dimming global future.
While the music and libretto are sharp and well-targeted, the messiness of the staging chips away at their effectiveness. Only rarely does the score or chorus fill the room reminding us of its intentionality. Otherwise, you are mostly scanning the beachgoers to figure out who is singing and straining to hear what is being sung (the libretto is given to all audience members when they enter).
I’ve seen plays and operas attempt to tackle climate change before and it’s the slipperiest of subject matters. How do you theatricalize a slow-moving nightmare we’ve all participated in? Something that is bigger than all of us, a threat to life as we know it, and yet society at large chooses not to take meaningful action. That should be dramatic but it often comes across as earnest, pleading, or a bit dry. This is by no means dry, but the scale here at BAM made it look punier than its intentions.
The show runs for an hour and then loops and repeats itself several times. Once inside, you can stay as long as you want. The audience can move around the balcony freely as well.
I didn’t find my change of position necessarily unlocked further secrets in the staging, but I got a better view of the very cute dog.