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Tooth and Claw
By Elyse Sommer
You certainly can't say that Michael Hollinger's Tooth and Claw, this year's main stage production of the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundations Science and Technology project, doesn't have all the elements of a corking good drama to add to our list of science dramas. And, except for some plausibility problems, it is.
The central character of Hollinger's play is an American biologist, Dr. Schuyler Baines, who upon being appointed as the director of the Galapagos based Charles Darwin Research Station and finds herself embroiled in a tense political situation -- a rebellion by the native fishermen against the Ecuadorian government's ban on harvesting sea cucumbers from the protected waters during which the fishermen slaughtered many of the endangered tortoises and took the scientists and staff of the Darwin Station hostage.
This clash between the poor fishermen who needed the harvest from the sea to feed their families actually did take place during the 1990s and the Station did have a woman director named Chantal Blanton. Yet, despite Tooth and Claw's factual origins (Hollinger traveled to the Galapagoss and interviewed scientists, fishermen, tour guides, park officials and politicians), this is as definitely a work of the imagination.
The play not only avoids being a NOVA style docudrama but examines the differences separating the islanders and the scientists in an often poetic style and structure. While Schuyler's inability to speak Spanish and her quite extraordinary lack of experience in hands-on diplomacy severely test credibility, her being obviously over her head in dealing with anything beyond her scientific expertise enabled the playwright to fill in a lot of background and escalate the tensions that drive his plot. Gloria Biegler's passionate portrayal of Schuyler also goes far to deflect these weaknesses.
Schuyler's love for the tortoises threatened with extinction by the local politics naturally is designed to give a new relevancy to Darwin's survival of the fittest theory. To sidestep too many theoretical discussions, the issues raised are woven through her own personal story -- her mother, a renowned biologist who sounds a little like the late Margaret Mead, has recently died; a long-standing romantic relationship also ended when she decided her work was more important than motherhood.
The personal story telling also applies to other characters. The ones who figure most importantly (in terms of their character's contribution to the story and the excellence of the actors) are: Malcolm (endearingly played by Nick Ullett), a retired British scientist who knew Schuyler's mother (probably a lot better than is ever clearly stated) and who serves as both audience addressing narrator and major character. . . Carlos (Noel Velez) a researcher who should have gotten Schuyler's job but by-passed for reasons of his nationality . . .Ana (Flora Diaz), the secretary whom Schuyler's predecessor impregnated. (the issues of maternal responsibility and paternity introduced through Ana and Malcolm, tend to weigh the play down with too much ambiguous subtext).
To add to the lyricism of Malcolm's soliloquies, there's the chorus of islanders who give the play a bi-lingual flavor. While this intensifies the chasm between Schuyler's world and the poor fishermen, the choral interludes tend to feel pretentious given this tiny stage and the very modest production values. These quibbles aside, director Dave P. Moore deserves admiration for his adept handling of the complexities of the play and its structure.
True to previous plays in the annual First Light Project, Tooth and Claw, proves that what might sound like a lecture topic can indeed be an involving two hours of theater. Like so many of our endangered species, it's slated to disappear from the Ensemble Theatre on May 9th.
Check out the EST web site (listed in the production notes) for other presentations that are part of this year's First Light project.
For a review of another and quite different play by Hollinger, follow this link to An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf.
For a list of other science plays we've reviewed go here
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