A Sea Change for a time of upheaval | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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A Sea Change for a time of upheaval

Cabinet of Curiosity sets sail with a new live show about mermaids, whales, sharks, seagulls—and climate disaster

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It begins, as many wonderful things do, with the sea. Enter the outdoor space at Pilsen's BRNDHAUS-PLZEN, and the squawk and swoop of real-life gulls merges with those of Sea Change, the latest offering from the wildly creative minds behind Cabinet of Curiosity.

Throughout the roughly 70-minute production featuring music, puppetry, dance, and storytelling, directors Michael Cotey and Frank Maugeri's seven-person cast evokes the vastness of the coastal oceans; places where worlds we know nothing of will continue long after we're gone, just as they did long before we were here. 

The script—penned by Lindsey Noel Whiting, Kasey Foster, Bethany Thomas, Liz Chidester, and Seth Bockley—deals with matters ranging from the patriarchal bullshit that sea sirens and mermaids have to put up with (Howard Pyle et al. left out a few things, it would seem) to the ever-tightening vise of climate change. Each of the loosely connected scenes are embedded with a song or two, some haunting, some delightfully silly, all threaded together with an overarching, profoundly feminist sensibility.

The production was originally created as an indoor spectacle, but COVID-19 changed that.

Opening night came with bonus drama as Maugeri and his team of vocalists/actors/dancers/puppeteers scrambled to make their open-air space just a bit more watertight. As thunder clouds roiled overhead and mist escalated into rain, the crew scrambled to set up a waterproof space for the drum kit and the electric violin as well as a tent for the crowd gathering. 

"I'm being punished for my sins," Maugeri announced before delivering one of the most engaging curtain speeches I've heard in 30 years. But even with some of the sound and lighting tech compromised or altered opening night, Sea Change was a magical experience, that threat of rain creating a sense of heightened community. 

The cast (Kasey Foster, Sadie Rose Glaspey, Manae Hammond, Allison Grischow, Olivia Rose Comai, Sofia Balabanova-Gebreab, and Time Brickey) works with the elaborately vivid creations of puppet and object designers Ellie Terrell, Jillian Gryzlak, Jesse Mooney-Bullock, and Milam Smith, sharing the stage with underwater creatures as small as a seagull and as massive as a great blue whale. 

Designer Shawn Ketchum Johnson's set is essentially an ark fashioned from a series of (what appear to be) shipping containers. Ensemble members haul open the heavy doors throughout, revealing the ship's inner workings or portholes that provide unexpected views of the deeps. 

In Bockley's The Lookout, we meet the man in the crow's nest, a gent who loves his job high on the mast, ever on the alert for whales, pirates, rocks. He's supposed to be minding the boiler as well, but he's not, despite the troubled queries of a stranded seagull, a bird who knows a boiler-about-to-blow when they hear it. The boiler issue is a recurring theme throughout and while it sounds like a metaphor with the subtlety of a clawhammer, it actually works; the point is made, the seagull sidekick is comic gold.

When a gigantic whale glides slowly into sight—increasing to seemingly impossible dimensions not entirely unlike that Christmas tree in The Nutcracker—it's as thrilling as a whale watch off Cape Cod. Noel Whiting's Whale Song is also as troubling, because more and more, these magnificent creatures are falling victim to warming seas and hunters. 

The whale here has a great deal to say about current conditions in a scene that unscrolls like a moving comic book while cast members slowly crank a series of handles. We meet Dave, an ordinary man who puts himself in an extraordinary situation, in what turns out to be rather an anti-Moby Dick. The scene is an elegiac reminder of just how fleeting the life of a species is in the grand scheme of things. 

In Thomas's A Mermaid's Tail (If There's a God), we get a drolly tragic, utterly unromantic autobiography of sorts from a mermaid/sea siren. The puppetry is intricate: As the larger-than-human-sized mermaid takes a deep dive into the man-made mythos rules that dictate her life and death, she slowly, resignedly sheds her scales. In the end, all that's left of her is seafoam. And maybe, that's all that's left for any of us when you get right down to it. There are worse ways to end up.

Foster's alternately whimsical and chilling More (which includes music by Charlie Otto) stars the moon, as a troubled shark grapples with some pointedly human issues involving the brutality of supply and demand on planet Earth. The moon—who has seen more than a few species flame out—has some good advice. Whether the flesh-and-blood creatures below will heed it remains an open question.

On a more lighthearted note: Whatever you do, do not sleep on the jellyfish scene. They'll almost make you believe you're underwater, in the best possible way.  v

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