The Great Immensity

The Civilians call for environmental activism in the world premiere of their science-infused musical play.

Erin Wilhelmi as Julie and Chris Sullivan as Karl in The Civilians' The Great Immensity, written and directed by Steve Cosson, at the Public Theater.
Erin Wilhelmi as Julie and Chris Sullivan as Karl in The Civilians' The Great Immensity, written and directed by Steve Cosson, at the Public Theater.
(© Richard Termine)

Inspiring environmental activism "isn't just about information," as the blonde, teenage (and passionate-beyond-her-years) "Earth Ambassador" Julie (Erin Wilhelmi) explains to us in The Civilians' new social-minded production, The Great Immensity, now running at the Public Theater. No, it's about packaging the message in a "compelling narrative framework" that hits its target audience right in the gut. Though the forthcoming honesty in the musical play's theatrical tactics is much appreciated, it falls short of its dramatic goals.

That's certainly not to say Steve Cosson's script falls short on drama. As Al Gore's images of melting ice caps and drowning Polar Bears taught us in An Inconvenient Truth, there are few topics more intrinsically dramatic than climate change (or global warming in its politically incorrect form). Raw information, however, as our environmental spokesperson Julie notes, has proven ineffectual in its call for urgent action, leaving Cosson to add his own theatrical elements of mystery, adventure, and earnest emotion to sweeten up the medicine he unabashedly pours down our throats. The end result, unfortunately, is similar to a plate of tuna fish covered in maple syrup — the original subject becomes even less desirable than it was before.

Our green protagonist is disillusioned Nature Channel videographer Karl (Chris Sullivan). We meet the brooding cameraman on the heels of a failed pitch to the station for a more-informative version of its typical thrill-packed Shark Week — one that would call attention to the hazards threatening ocean life, and consequently, the well-being of mankind. Just weeks before the 2015 global climate summit in Paris, he finds himself on another assignment on a tropical island where he meets Julie, a young girl with big ambitions as a member of a youth environmental organization, the "Earth Ambassadors" (think Greenpeace for kids). Traveling money and a school schedule seem to be no object for this government-protesting machine as she traverses the globe with her fellow ambassadors, handcuffing herself to various buildings and doling out television interviews like a seasoned pro. While Karl films her emotional plea for action, she becomes the fire that inspires him to brush off his dispirited complacency and join her in her quest for change — not to mention a search for the perfect "charismatic megafuana" to dispel their message.

The scenario is just as cloying as it sounds, though Cosson, who also directs, manages to dilute the taste a bit. He grounds the talented Wilhelmi and Sullivan in sincere performances as their characters develop this unorthodox relationship, keeping the piece's honorable message constantly at the fore of our minds, no matter what direction the story may turn. And it certainly turns in some unexpected directions. While Chris and Julie set out on their unspecific journey to save the world from climate change, Chris' wife Phyllis (a pleasant Rebecca Hart) travels to the tropical island on a wild goose chase for her missing husband — though it seems even she is unable to justify her sudden urgent need to catch up with him on what she already knows is a filmmaking project. As Phyllis encounters a slew of characters with whom her husband had spoken before disappearing, the play transforms into an adventure game of sorts. Phyllis pieces together a series of clues that lead the way to Karl (and explain the enigmatic title) while building up to the big reveal of his charismatic megafauna of choice.

As this mystery adventure story unfolds, a host of ancillary characters (played by the thoroughly engaging Damian Baldet, Cindy Cheung, Dan Domingues, and Trey Lyford) take turns on the stage in comic vignettes and catchy musical numbers (composed by Michael Friedman). They serve up a platter of scientific lectures and history lessons, many of which are actually quite entertaining and informative. Yet, as you watch a trio of gentlemen in candyman outfits crooning about Martha, the last living Passenger Pigeon from the Cincinnati Zoo, elementary school memories of substitute teachers popping in episode after episode of School House Rock come flooding back. The piece attempts to conjoin its self-aware lecturing with a heartfelt storyline whose characters' desperation, with any luck, is as infectious as the greed that fuels the destructive oil industry. This authenticity, unfortunately, is drowned out by the blaring sounds of a proselytizing sermon — possibly the only thing Americans enjoy reviling more than our government's gross incompetence.

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