Explosive ideas, real passion: Eco-drama 'Perfect Blue' is perfect theater

Blue Publish
Harry Smith and Emma Gibson star in Tiny Dynamite’s environmental disaster drama “Perfect Blue.”

Since life first appeared on Earth 3.8 billion years ago, the planet has undergone five great extinctions, events that have wiped out more than half of all species.

Tiny Dynamite’s intense, disturbing, and absorbing new drama Perfect Blue, through Sunday at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City, opens at the beginning of the Sixth Great Extinction.

In other words, playwright  G.S. Watson’s two-character play, featuring two actors who are (literally) separated by an ocean and who play off each other via Skype, is set in the realm of science fiction.

The premise is as elegant as it is simple. A married couple, both British scientists, are forced by their jobs to maintain a long-distance relationship. Carys (Tiny Dynamite artistic director Emma Gibson) works in America for a multinational biotech firm, while her husband, Michael (Harry Smith, Tiny Dynamite’s Spacewang), has turned his back on the corporate world and is running an agricultural co-op in the English countryside.

The audience is privy to the couple’s Skype conversations, chats about their difficult relationship, their teenage son, the nature of evolution, and the responsibility of the scientist to humanity. The interactions become increasingly strained and combative as an environmental disaster unfolds across Europe and Britain.

Gibson and Smith actually are separated by the Atlantic during the play itself: She is on stage in Old City while he Skypes in his performance from a Victorian house in London.

This isn’t just a gimmick. It’s a palpable way to show the audience how human interactions are actively shaped and changed by social media.

Director David O’Connor (Brewer’s Fayre at Tiny Dynamite) and Barrymore-winning production designer Jorge Cousineau present interactions between Carys and Michael using several screens that appear as the occasion calls for it, including semitranslucent partitions that periodically separate us from the stage.

In between each conversation, Carys turns to the audience and tries to explain the technologies she has developed, with video segments to illustrate. She describes how she has used genetic modification to reintroduce long-ago-extinct species, but also to create new variants, new types of flowers, snakes, insects, gorgeous butterflies, and giant dragonflies.

Watson (Food; The Art of Hiding) here uses the most exquisite language imaginable, with rich, complex, and strange imagery, deploying a poetics of evolutionary biology delivered by Gibson with passion and conviction.

As the 60-minute drama progresses, it becomes increasingly evident that the ravages experienced by Michael and other Europeans may not be entirely due to nature’s own design, but may be humanly caused.

Grounded in science and making use of technologies that utterly define our lives in the age of social media, Perfect Blue, developed in partnership with British theater company Pursued by a Bear, explores the shrinking gap between the limits of human technology and the unlimited reach of the human imagination. It poses an astonishing question: What if biotech firms responded to impending ecological disaster not by discovering a way to avert it, but by developing technologies they could use to shape the next great extinction according to their own design?

What if people like Carys and her bosses could determine which species would live and which would die out? What if they could use environmental forces to cull the human population in certain parts of the globe (say, Africa and Europe, as the play suggests) while keeping other territories safe (say, America)?

Perfect Blue uses just the right mix of fact and fiction to remind us that our environmental future is far from settled. It disturbs and unsettles without coming across as shrill or alarmist. That’s a rare feat.

Perfect Blue

Through July 23 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American Street.
Tickets: $20; $15 students and seniors.
Information: 610-322-1985, tinydynamite.org

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