Storytelling has been used for millennia in ancient Greece, Rome, Africa, and other places to share stories of superhuman achievement, inspire hope, warn, and more. In “Sea Sick” by science journalist Alanna Mitchell, presented by ArtsEmerson through May 22, Mitchell tells a compelling story about the mysterious ocean – the wielder of “life-altering” – filled with curiosity, apprehension and dread. optimism that highlights our impact on the sea, and how without it we will cease to exist.
Staged in Emerson’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theater at Paramount Center, Mitchell stands in what appears to be a circle drawn on the floor. There is a clean board with a small table to its right with a pitcher of water and a glass on top. With only the occasional screening and minimal music, Mitchell engages audiences for just over an hour with stories about her life, articles she’s written and what she’s learned about the warming ocean. still. Although she uses the blackboard to sketch an important-to-understand diagram, Mitchell is more than a lecturer. She engages audiences with vivid memories and mature chronicles that elicit laughter at times and grave concern at others.
Mitchell grew up on the prairies of western Canada, where bright green grass and azure skies seemed to stretch on forever. In his home, Darwin was a hero, and his father was a scientist who “wrapped [cigarette] smoke,” she says, wanted to document and study nearby animals. His mother, an artist, often painted prairie scenes. Mitchell’s father’s curiosity and mother’s sensitivity are evident in her work as a story-telling reporter and on stage as she spills what appears will be her most poignant story to date.In “Sea Sick “, a one-man show commissioned by Toronto’s Theater Center with the help of Franco Boni and Ravi Jain, Mitchell shares in shimmering detail her deep 3,000-foot descent into the ocean on a small ship, how she witnessed of a huge coral spawn in Panama and how she accidentally drank a water sample contaminated with a red algae bloom. She even tells a hilarious story about how some things didn’t go as she hoped aboard the little submarine-like vessel.
For years, the avid writer has zigzagged around the world to learn about the ocean with some of the world’s top scientists, including Dr. Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist and oceanographer who spends so much time in the ocean that she has been dubbed “Her Deepness,” scientist and conservationist Tim Flannery, and Nancy Knowlton, founder of the Center for Marine Biodiversity at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.
There are startling statistics Mitchell shares about how the ocean is dying. There are dead zones around the world where lack of oxygen prevents marine plants and animals from thriving, red tides or algal blooms that can be toxic, and an explanation of how changing levels of pH of the ocean can impact everything in it. Much of what is mentioned is familiar. However, Mitchell deftly connects the dots with straightforward explanations and revealing demonstrations. For example, to show ocean acidification (the reduction in ocean pH levels), she drops a piece of chalk into a pitcher of what turns out to be vinegar, not water. We watch the liquid slowly spray the white stick. She points out that the ocean’s pH level isn’t as acidic right now, but if we don’t do anything, the sea will dissolve the shells of sea scallops, oysters, muscle and other shellfish faster. But it could also dissolve coral reefs, bones and teeth.
Mitchell is part of a growing group of writers, artists and activists seeking to show us the wonders of our world and why we should work to save it, from the musical fable “Wild” by V (formerly Eve Ensler) to “Ocean” by Lisa D’Amour. Obstruction.” It is the second ocean-centric play to premiere in Boston in less than a year. Despite the latter’s use of music, costumes, and other effects, the approach single from “Sea Sick” fare much better. The message doesn’t get lost in a production that’s too long, with so much science it makes your head spin. On the contrary, Mitchell’s offering blends science with a real emotion. The piece feels like a conversation you would have with a friend over dinner that prompts you to think more deeply about the world during the car ride. And maybe even do something about it.
She brilliantly conveys her fascination with the ocean, which she describes as “hot, breathy and sour”. Still, Mitchell is seduced by his glory. Thousands of feet below the surface, she describes her view from a porthole as a “beautifully desolate landscape. It reminds me of the prairies I grew up in. You really have to be careful to find the beauty…it’s is sparse and ancient and awfully exciting.”
Mitchell avoids preaching a doomsday scenario despite sharing the heartbreaking truths of how climate change is impacting the world. She balances fear with wonder and avoids judgment for facts and blood. She does not propose an end to her story but rather a charge: to do everything possible to ensure the best possible result. Mitchell implores us to become our own heroes on the epic journey to save the world.
“Sea Sick,” presented by ArtsEmerson, runs now through May 22.