By James Foritano
Cambridge, MA – Put eight characters of differing allegiances embodied by eight seasoned actors on Baffin Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, stir in climate disruption along with assorted native spirits, animals and near-death/real death experiences, and you have a potent, compelling brew.
The challenge mastered in “Sila” by the playwright (Chantal Bilodeau), actors and puppets is to involve the audience in each character’s world view so completely that, although we don’t necessarily become their allies, we feel their differing loyalties before we can argue with them.
Thomas, played by Robert Murphy, is the commander of Baffin Island’s coast guard station. About to retire, he wants to leave a legacy of safety, specifically, a deep-water port where scientific expeditions can securely anchor in order to explore and resource the polar fastness.
Jean, played by Nael Nacer, a climatologist with a fervent desire to preserve this fragile polar world is suspicious of exploration as a cover for exploitation, and so, resists Thomas’ urgings to lend his scientific credibility to the next expedition’s fully-funded arrival.
Two friends, both men of action and commitment, are divided by a common skepticism that in Thomas’ case leans towards the practical and immediate, and in Jean’s case towards what Thomas would call ‘visionary.’
Around these two central characters, revolve other persons with world views no less developed and no less pertinent to our life on earth.
Leanna, played by Reneltta Arluk, is a grandmother/activist whose one small piece of luggage is always packed and ready to roll. She fancies herself both a mother and a grandmother to her needy daughter veronica played by Sophori Ngin; but, in fact, she almost totally at the service of every conference and/or political meeting where her deep knowledge and passion are needed.
Tragically, the ‘land’ under her own family’s feet is growing perilously thin while Leanna tends to the land and sky of our planet.
The ubiquitous theme of love and loss is guided so surely by the hand of playwright Chantal Bilodeau that although it registers everywhere, we feel its seemingly insoluble dilemmas instead of repetition.
Thomas and Jean wrestle to combine their near/far perspectives in a way that will knit their planet together rather than pull it apart; Thomas’ second in command at their coast guard station, Raphael, played by Danny Bryck, wrestles also to do his duty when heavy weather threatens, but, again, finds himself pulling against as often as he pulls with his commander.
A mother polar bear must teach her cub to hunt in order to live, but in this land of thinning ice, wouldn’t life be better preserved by just staying home? Frolicing cub, serious, loving (and HUGE) mother, both puppets with a heart beat, bring their dilemma home to us – as dry and well-fed as we are.
Even a goddess of the sea, brought wondrously alive by masterful shadow puppetry, hovers between slaking her ferocious vengeance and allowing herself to be ‘combed’ into, if not love, submission.
Actor Jaime Carrillo’s Kuvageegai is a hunter/guide who steps in and out of the world of humans and spirits. Comically, he is never quite ready to guide, but ever ready to feel the breath, the ‘Silla,’ in the Inuit language, that flows between these two worlds. In one crucial moment, this wavering character decisively grasps a tool from the spirit world that he extends, with directions, to his astonished and resistant employer.
Listening closely, feeling deeply, are the twin challenges and rewards of this complex but not, in my opinion, unduly complicated exploration of the central dilemma of our time.
When two unlikely allies meet to summon the strength of extremity and receive the grace of empathy, a way opens, a breath of hope expands for them…and for us?
(Underground Railway Theater performances of “Sila” continues through May 25 at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Mass. For more information, call (617) 576-9278.