Atlas of Mud: A Cautionary Tale
A young girl emerges from the darkness on stage. She is awakening, deep in the belly of a vast, wooden ship, reminiscent of Noah’s Ark. I listen intently as she vividly recounts a dream:
I was in the sky…
I was flying…
And there were people – so many people. They were all moving towards the water. They didn’t notice me so I swooped low over them looking for you. There were boats – just like this one but hundreds and hundreds of them. And around every boat were soldiers. People were crowded onto the decks of the boat and all of them had suitcases and boxes. There was no room to move and still more people kept climbing on.
Her dream is frightening and the event confusing. Who is this child? What prompted her nightmare? Who is she talking to?
This is the Working Group Theatre’s production of Atlas of Mud in Iowa City’s Riverside Theatre. The audience is in rapt attention as the scene the young girl describes gets worse, horrifyingly so. The images are chilling:
Then the horns blew and the boats started moving and the people on the land pushed towards the water. Some of them fell and the crowd moved over them like a wave…. Parents were pushing their children into the arms of the soldiers and the children were screaming and holding onto their parents’ necks.
We hear gunshots in the distance, and it’s soon clear that the soldiers in the child’s dream would not tolerate anyone climbing aboard their vessels.
The lights go dark, and the girl disappears off stage.
It’s a chilling prologue — and a gripping one.
Act 1, Scene 1, and we’re now in a bedroom, minimal in its set design, a sheet spread on the floor to represent the bed. Two people are chatting amicably, and I feel as though I’m listening in on a real conversation between lovers.
The actors, Kristy Hartsgrove as Elaine and Brandon Bruce as Marcus, are so natural, so convincing in their dialogue and their connection to each other that I can’t recognize this as acting. They’re that good. I lose myself in their hopes, their dreams, their conflict. The play has pulled me in, and I suspend disbelief.
What unfolds turns out to be much more than a drama between two people, though human aspirations and disappointments are clearly central to the story. Marcus and Elaine are scientists, glaciologists, to be exact. Marcus is headed to Antarctica to do research, and — for reasons we soon learn — Elaine is struggling to decide whether to join him there.
Here’s an important note before we proceed: Playwright Jennifer Fawcett (who is convincing both as Miriam and as a Bird Keeper) cautions that this is not a “scientific” play; she calls herself a “non-scientist writing scientists for a non-scientific audience.”
Marcus does his best to persuade Elaine to join him in Antarctica and, as a relentless thunderstorm rages around them, we begin to see that the theme is much more global than an intimate relationship.
The storm continues for days, and Elaine finds herself forced to evacuate, missing her flight and losing her only chance to escape. The parallels with Hurricane Katrina — and with heavy flooding elsewhere, including Iowa City — are clear. Through Elaine, the audience experiences grief, loss, uncertainty, violence, and fear. We inevitably ponder how we might respond to a crisis, to losing everything and everyone we hold dear. And we think about responsibility and guilt, privilege and despair, faith and reason, right and wrong, cruelty and kindness.
And, as all these emotions roil inside us, we also begin to be aware of a larger calamity looming. The play becomes a warning of what may lie ahead for humankind. Yet, Fawcett doesn’t badger us about the selfish behaviors that may lead to our ultimate demise. She lets us come to that conclusion on our own.
Faith and Reason
In Act 1, Scene 2, Elaine, the scientist, meets Elias, who later becomes known to us as the Reverend.
Ice is history told in water. It’s the most complete — the most perfect record of the earth’s climate that we have. And it’s suspended in deep ice cores in Antarctica.
Like a time capsule.
Right, made one snowfall at a time. If we study what’s happened before, and what’s happening in Antarctica now, then maybe we can get a sense of what’s coming.
And stop it?
Probably not. But find ways to slow it down maybe, so we can adapt.
But adapting won’t come soon enough for humanity, as we will learn. Elias, sensitively played by Martin Andrews, gently tries to share his faith with Elaine. She’s not buying it.
I’m not really into the whole God thing.
You don’t have to be to have faith.
Did you know that almost every ancient culture, from all over the world – Inca, Egyptians, Aborigines – they each had a story about the world being destroyed by a great flood. … [I]n each of those stories, mankind got a second chance.
So this is our second chance?
Yes. It could be. …
It’s a dangerous way to think. We don’t take any responsibility – we just wait for the “gods” to figure it out. Besides, in those stories, only a few people are saved.
From Myth to Reality
As the play progresses, the entire world is flooded, validating the myths of ancient cultures. And, as we later learn, only a few people are saved this time around. At some point, it’s no longer a question of faith versus reason, but of waiting — long years of waiting — for the waters to recede.
Act 2 takes place on a modern-day ark, a striking and impressive set designed by Shawn Johnson, but one that carries a precious cargo far different from Noah’s in the biblical tale.
I don’t want to spoil the play by telling more. It’s enough to know that the child, whose name is Mud (artfully played by Natalie Kropf), is the thread whose existence weaves the story together, and that the ship’s precious cargo is humanity’s only real hope for the future.
Does humanity get a second chance? And do we deserve one? Perhaps. And maybe. But the latter is not the province of the playwright to decide for us. She leaves us to determine that for ourselves. A heavy responsibility to be sure, and one we cannot afford to ignore, as we have pressing environmental problems of our own.
While the flooding of the entire world may be a bit of a stretch to modern-day scientists (What? Not even the Himalayas are above water?), a cataclysmic event of some kind is not outside the realm of the public’s imagination. Are we headed toward a climate-change-induced apocalypse? Can we stop it? Or will we simply close our eyes to the signs of our inevitable demise?
It’s a question worth pondering — and Atlas of Mud is a play well worth seeing.
Additional cast members — who all deserve more than just a mention — include local favorite Tim Budd as the Boatman who takes advantage of other people’s misfortune.
With just a change of wardrobe, Andrews brilliantly morphs offstage from gentle Elias to become the steel-hearted Captain of the modern-day ark.
Bruce reappears, along with Budd and Fawcett, as Bird Keepers, charged with nurturing the creatures who will be sent to seek land, like Noah’s doves. The three keep more than birds, however, as they harbor a stowaway who may lead to the salvation of humankind — or not.
Kayla Prestel and John Kaufman play Evacuees, hunkering down in what resembles the Louisiana Super Dome during Hurricane Katrina. Kaufman also makes an appearance as a duty-bound soldier, forcing order where none exists.
Atlas of Mud was commissioned by Union Eight Theatre in Canada (Toronto/Owen Sound) and received the 2008 National Science Playwriting award by the Kennedy Center ACTF.
Thursday, December 9: 7:30 p.m.
Friday, December 10: 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, December 11: 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, December 12: 2:00 p.m.
Riverside Theatre, Iowa City, Iowa
Facebook: Working Group Theatre
A Springboard for Conversation
In keeping with the troupe’s conviction that “theatre can be a springboard for conversation,” several performances are followed by panel discussions, interviews, or other events for which the audience is invited to stay after the play.
This past Sunday, Blue Planet Green Living‘s co-founder, Joe Hennager, moderated a panel of local environmentalists, including Kelley Putman and Kate Giannini, Johnson County Conservation District; Fred Meyer, Backyard Abundance; and Chris Vinsonhaler, Iowa River Call. A portion of ticket sales for Sunday’s performance was donated to Iowa River Call, an educational outreach sponsored by the Iowa Environmental Coalition.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)