Terra Firma Imagines a Tiny Country Surviving the Rising Waters
Barbara Hammond's world-premiere play marks the dawning of the Coop, a new off-Broadway theater company.
"Imagine there's no countries" is a line that inspires hope when sung in the dreamy voice of John Lennon, but it would portend terror if spoken by Greta Thunberg, our Cassandra of climate change. The world of Barbara Hammond's Terra Firma exists between those poles of optimism and doom, as a tiny country looks out over the waters in defiance of the end of the world. The end is an unlikely and ballsy beginning for the brand-new theater company, the Coop, which marks its maiden voyage with Terra Firma. If this polished production of a challenging new play is any indication, there is more room for optimism than doom when considering the company's future.
Terra Firma is the name of a small country, the territory of which is a rusty platform in the sea. The aptly named Roy (Gerardo Rodriguez) is king of this domain, ruling alongside his Queen (Andrus Nichols). Jones (John Keating) is their only citizen. In the opening moments of the play, he and Roy have taken a hostage (Tom O'Keefe), captured within their territorial waters. While the queen cares greatly about the proper administration of justice, Roy knows that he must defend Terra Firma from all enemies if there is to be a country left for his Prince Regent, Teddy (Daniel Molina, radiating Thunberg-like angst). A marital argument ensues over the balance between liberty and security. It seems like the premise for a classic sitcom (Gulliver's Island?), but it's actually more grounded in reality than you might think.
The inspiration for Terra Firma is Sealand, an abandoned World War II fort just outside of British territorial waters that Paddy Roy Bates claimed as a sovereign state in 1967. Despite not even having lowly observer status at the UN, Sealand has a storied history of armed conflicts and diplomatic rows. To this day, the Bates family maintains an active Internet presence, with an online store that sells Sealand merchandise and patents of nobility. And while the UK government has never formally recognized Sealand, it has made no active moves to reclaim or demolish the platform in the last 50 years — a tacit acknowledgment that one of its citizens discovered a loophole in international law and staked a claim on Terra Nullius (or perhaps proof that it's just not worth the bother). But Terra Firma is not just about one eccentric libertarian's hobby. Hammond is chasing much bigger fish.
The play isn't set in the 20th century, but the not-so-distant future, far away from dry land. Teddy returns after spending a fortnight at sea without having discovered the coast. He treats a rescued shrub like precious treasure. The arrival of a diplomat in a tattered suit (T. Ryder Smith, simultaneously funny and tragic) offers further evidence that something terrible has happened in the world, imperiling Terra Firma.
The apocalyptic setting and vaguely clownish characters give Terra Firma the flavor of Beckett, with humor and poetry emerging from its absurd reduction of society. This is a difficult style to master, and while Hammond takes an admirable swing, her poetry all too often devolves into fortune cookie wisdom: "I've found it's best not to think too much about Anything if you don't want to feel bad about Everything," observes Jones (Keating is the most naturally Beckettian of the actors, able to sell such lines with a cheerful smirk). "You matter! More than you know," contends the Diplomat, sounding very much like Dr. Seuss. This earns him a rebuke from the hostage: "Ya don matter. He don matter. Ya ARE matter." Deep.
Luckily, Shana Cooper's deft direction of excellent performances compensates for the half-baked writing. Rodriguez exudes manly vigor and we absolutely believe he would be one of the survivors of catastrophe. O'Keefe seems to carry several plays worth of backstory in his detailed and enigmatic performance. Nichols is ruggedly regal as the queen, her arm constantly raised in a wave. Her character takes her position seriously, so we never question some of her more grandiloquent statements.
Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene outfits her in drab work clothes crowned with a glittering tiara, the foremost example of Terra Firma's observance of ceremony in the midst of Armageddon. Eric Southern's lighting takes advantage of the vast backdrop to give us a sense of time. He and sound designer Jane Shaw collaborate to create the action beyond the stage, producing chills and thrills that usually require a multimillion-dollar CGI budget. Andrew Boyce's lavish set, which realistically produces a small sea platform, wouldn't look out of place on Broadway. It serves as the Coop's loudest announcement that they are the new kid on the block, and a producing force to be reckoned with.
Terra Firma isn't a perfect play, but Hammond's ambition is admirable and necessary: Like John Lennon's "Imagine," Terra Firma asks us to consider the purpose of systems like international law and the nation-state. Will these structures disappear once they no longer prove useful, or will they linger and rust like the platform itself, waiting to be reclaimed?