Reviewed by Kenneth Laboy
The strength of director Christopher Domig’s choices precede the narrative of The Rare Biosphere. The audience enters the space through its set, a wonderfully intimate living space designed by Guy de Lancey, through the kitchen and across the living room into the seating area. This allows the audience to see the set as a home first and a stage second. As one sits to the sounds of Celia Cruz, a photo slips from the playbill – it is a family of five, their smiles as wide as can be. The empty living room with the music blasting takes on new shades. Loss, or the expectation of it, has settled into the audience, and then, lights down. The door opens. A joyous Sophie enters talking about her day to her absent mother. She is happy. The audience knows she will not be happy. Loss will settle into her. Domig has given the necessary tools to make this loss palpable from the start.
The play, written with incredible empathy by Chris Cragin-Day, explores the parallels of how society at large treats diversity as a nuisance and the microbial diversity of the ‘rare biosphere’, a marine ecosystem in which diversity is crucial. The play is not without its faults, but those are few and brief – the parallel mentioned above loses subtlety as the narrative progresses, with one character breaking the fourth wall and explaining why this metaphor is important and relevant. Scenes outside Sophie’s house exist outside the audience’s periphery and across the stage, muddying sightlines and competing with the concurrent action on-stage. But these don’t deter from the pure enjoyment one feels as the story unfolds.
It is an endearing piece of art, anchored by two fantastic performances by Natalia Plaza and Zac Owens. Plaza has the harder job. She sets the tone of the piece with an extended monologue that exudes youthful optimism. She is instantly lovable as the protagonist and this heightens the incoming dread of her discovery and subsequent survival. As the play progresses, Plaza deftly balances the limits of her strength and vulnerability, while maintaining the go-getter attitude she was introduced with. But all great heroes need an equally great foil and Owens delivers the goods. His Steven is an unwavering source of positivity in the face of adversity. An instantly quotable character, he is both comic and charming, as he tries to make sense of his privilege and his place in Sophie’s story.
It is through Steven that the audience gets, what I believe to be, the emotional thesis of this production. Costume designer Emily White aptly gives him a Journey’s t-shirt. It urges: “Don’t Stop Believing”.
The Rare Biosphere plays now through Sunday, May 19th at Calvary St. George’s (61 Gramercy Park North).
Tickets can be bought at http://www.seadogtheater.org for $30 ($20 student ticket).