Saturday, October 11, 2014

Till Death Do Us Part

When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, her claims about problems caused by synthetic pesticides sounded an alarm that gave new urgency to the environmental movement and led to a nationwide ban of DDT. It also drew the fury of chemical manufacturers whose profits were severely threatened.

In 1970, the United States Environmental Protection Agency was launched under the Presidency of Richard M. Nixon. In September 2014, Barack Obama expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to cover an area twice the size of Texas.

While many still insist that climate change is a figment of our imagination, science has weighed in with damning evidence to the contrary. Bottom line? Earth is facing another wave of extinction events, making the list of endangered species more ominous than ever before. As Secretary of State John Kerry notes:
"Shame on all of us if we don't act now to confront this 'gathering storm.' After all, there aren't many big global challenges accompanied by decades-long 'heads-ups.' It's even less often that the warnings you receive are verifiable -- rooted in scientific evidence. But with global climate change, that's exactly what we have. Decades of observation, monitoring, and research have demonstrated beyond a doubt that the Earth's climate is changing, that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are to blame, and that the consequences will be devastating unless the world gets serious about reducing emissions. This is not a distant or future challenge. Climate change is affecting millions around the world right now -- today."
Add poaching and overfishing to the mix and the results can be deadly. From polar bears to Siberian tigers, from California condors to monarch butterflies, migratory patterns are undergoing drastic disruptions while the invisible hand of the market decimates certain species. Toxins from pesticides sprayed by crop dusters have wiped out huge populations of honey bees (an insect that plays a critical role in pollination). A recent story about walruses in crisis made international headlines.

Meanwhile, industrialized fishing has taken a heavy toll on fish stocks such as bluefin tuna. Some scientists even suggest that the rate of extinction is happening 1,000 times faster because of humans. In 2007, Rob Stewart's documentary, Sharkwater, focused attention on the slaughter of sharks (a key part of the aquatic food chain) in order to meet the demand for shark fin soup

In 2009, The Cove brought the annual Taiji dolphin drive hunt in Japan to the world's attention.  For his disturbing documentary Louie Psihoyos received the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

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The 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival recently presented the world premiere of Gardeners of Eden, a fascinating documentary about animal activists in Kenya who rescue elephant and rhinoceros calves whose mothers have been slaughtered by poachers intent on stripping the dead animals of their ivory. For those (like Chelsea Clinton) who have a special interest in preventing the extinction of elephants, here's some remarkable footage of a protective herd of elephants in Botswana helping a newborn calf to get on its feet.

Directed by Austin Peck and Annaliese Vandenberg, Gardeners of Eden focuses on the orphans program run by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. Sometimes transporting an orphaned calf from the wild to the DSWT's facility can be done by truck.

In the following footage, a bush pilot can be seen transporting a baby elephant (with the help of two assistants) in a  Cessna 172.

As Dame Daphne Sheldrick explains:

Although, in Gardeners of Eden, one of the orphan calves rescued from the wild succumbs to a weakened immune system. the film does an excellent job of detailing the care and attention given to these victims of the illegal ivory trade. The following clip gives a sense of what happens to those orphans that survive, thrive, and can eventually be returned to the bush.

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Founded in 1977, Save The Whales has had remarkable success with branding. Simply stated, its purpose is to:
"... educate children and adults about marine mammals, their environment and their preservation. Save the Whales focuses on educating the public (especially children) about marine mammals and the fragile ocean environment. Save the Whales believes children, the future of the planet, need to be empowered and know that their actions can promote change. Education is the key to saving whales, oceans, and ourselves."
While the organization's website is filled with information about all kinds of cetacea, there is no mention of the whale who is the protagonist of  by Samuel D. Hunter's provocative new play which was recently given its Bay area premiere by the Marin Theatre Company. Although, at about 650 pounds, he might weigh as much as a pygmy killer whale, Charlie is a middle-aged, morbidly obese homosexual dying of congestive heart failure. The fact that he is surrounded by Mormons in a small town in northern Idaho certainly isn't helping matters.

Adam Magill (Elder Thomas) and Nicholas Pelczar (Charlie)
in a scene from The Whale (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Charlie (Nicholas Pelczar) supports himself by teaching online writing courses and depending on his close friend, Liz (Liz Sklar) to supply him with with junk food which, as a nurse, she knows will only worsen his health. As the play begins, Charlie's solitude is interrupted by the appearance of Elder Thomas (Adam Magill), a confused young Mormon who has been disowned by his family for being a pothead.

Charlie may seem like a eternal cock-eyed optimist, but he agrees to let Elder Thomas tell him about the Church of Latter Day Saints because he has an ulterior motive. He wants to find out what the local Mormon church did that caused  his former boyfriend, Alan (Liz's brother), to suffer a massive depression during which Alan starved himself to death.

At the same time, knowing that his life is nearing its end, Charlie desperately wants to have some face-to-face contact with his daughter, Ellie (Cristina Oeschger), who he hasn't seen since she was two years old. When father and daughter finally meet, he discovers that Ellie has evolved into a bitter and supremely cynical teenager who hates everyone in the world, including her mother, Mary (Michelle Maxson). Although she radiates hostility, Charlie is quick to sense Ellie's basic intelligence and her ability to do some good -- if given a chance.

Michelle Maxson and Nicholas Pelczar in a
scene from The Whale (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The playwright, who recently won the a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (a/k/a "Genius" award) discusses his approach to drama in the following two video clips:

Beautifully directed by Jasson Minadakis, The Whale offers juicy supporting roles for those who revolve around Charlie's doomed sun like planets of lesser size and gravity. Liz Sklar does a superb job as the disillusioned ex-Mormon nurse whose medical training insists that Charlie go to a hospital while her personal history knows that the mere act of trying to get him out of the house would kill him. Cristina Oeschger (who did such a fine job in the title role of Carrie: The Musical with Ray of Light Theatre) oozes vengeful sarcasm as Charlie's estranged daughter, Ellie. Adam Magill (Elder Thomas) and Michelle Maxson (Mary) do outstanding work as the two most confused and conflicted characters in Hunter's play.

Liz Sklar and Nicholas Pelczar in a scene from The Whale
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

While many would leap at the chance to perform in a fat suit, Hunter's play presents a much more intense physical challenge than one might glean from simply reading the script.  The evening rests on the shoulders of the actor portraying Charlie, who must punctuate his lines (as well as the silences between them) with a constant stream of painful wheezes and desperate gasps for air as he clutches his chest and struggles to make even the slightest bodily movement. Whether choking on a piece of bread from a hero sandwich Liz has brought him, dictating notes to his students into a voice-activated computer file, or struggling to transfer his massive body from the couch to the double-wide wheelchair Liz has procured from the hospital, Nicholas Pelczar gives a stunning demonstration of craft that has been carefully shaped by breath and physicality coach, Vicki Shaghoian.

As I sat through The Whale, listening to the pained sounds coming from Pelczar's dying animal of a man, I couldn't help but hope that he was taking good care of his vocal cords (performing this role 6-8 times a week must be a killer). The following trailer, although visually enticing, doesn't give a hint of Pelczar's virtuoso performance, which is akin to a musician mastering an atonal score written in constantly changing rhythms.

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