‘Sila’ is a strong blend of entertainment, education
CAMBRIDGE — The partnership between the two resident theaters at the Central Square Theatre and nearby MIT — the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT —- has produced, far more often than not, plays that have been both educational and entertaining, with compelling storylines (“Breaking the Code”) and standout acting (“Operation Epsilon“).
For its latest production, the partnership has reached out to a work by New York-based playwright Chantal Bilodeau, a Montreal native and the artistic director of The Arctic Cycle, an organization created to support the writing, development, and production of eight plays that examine the impact of climate change on the eight countries of the Arctic.
The result is the Underground Railway Theatre’s world premiere of “Sila” — Inukitut for “breath” — now at the Central Square Theatre through May 25.
Many of the science-themed works have been primers on certain topics — in this case climate change — but “Sila” is also a primer on the Inuit people and their culture.
The inhabitants of Canada’s Northwest Territories share many of the same woes that our Native Americans do — including a scandalous suicide rate and a vulnerability to drugs and alcohol.“Sila” is set on Baffin Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, where a rapidly changing environment due to climate change is affecting people and animals alike, in this case a polar bear mother named Monica and her cub, Daughter, making life difficult not only for the animals seeking to survive, but the Inuit hunters and trappers who carve out a living in the area.
The first plotline involves Canadian Coast Guard Officer Thomas (Robert Murphy), who would like to engage French-Canadian climatologist Jean (Nael Nacer) in a research project that might help the development of a deep-water port and oil exploration. Thomas has decided that the eventual development of the area would benefit his country but his views are also challenged by the arrival of a new Coast Guard officer, Raphael (Danny Bryck). Jean is conflicted — he would rather do research on climate change that might help change the behavior of countries that are contributing to the problem.
Inuit activist Leanna (Renellta Arluk) is fully invested in the future of her people, but to the exclusion of her relationship with her daughter Veronica (Sophorl Ngin), who has a troubled son.
“Sila” also features a striking bit of puppetry comes into play with the aforementioned polar bears, who appear as life-size creations stalking the Arctic tundra: Kudos to the puppetry design by David Fichter, Master Puppet Builder Will Cabell and Puppet Builders Brad Shur, Matthew Woellert, and Penny Benson, as well as those operating and “voicing” the “animals” — the aforementioned Ngin as the mother, Monica, and Theresa Nguyen as the cub Daughter, along with puppeteer Skye Ellis. Nuliajuk, the Inuit goddess of the ocean and underworld, represented by a shadow puppet with a human voice portrayed by Gabruielle Weiler.
The dialogue embraces three languages (English, French, and Inukitut): Nacer offers his dialogue in both French and English, as befitting a country with two national languages, but it can get a bit confusing at times.
Each of the three plotlines will take a dark turn — the Inuit family will suffer an unspeakable tragedy, the polar bears will run afoul of changing ice conditions, and the Coast Guard officers are involved in a rescue effort that will challenge their values and viewpoints on their mission in the Arctic.
Veronica believes the solution to her restless and bored son lies further South — Montreal, to be exact, to the distress of her mother. But before she can be even put her plan into place, his death sends her on what appears to be a bottomless tailspin.
Between that and especially during the life-and-death search and rescue scene involving Thomas and Raphael, “Sila” threatens to veers precipitously into overwrought melodrama, but Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian eventually restores theatrical order.
Special kudos to Jaime Carillo, whose versatility as an actor has shown itself over and over in the past few theater seasons at a variety of local theaters, as Kuvageegai, the native guide who brings Jean out onto the ice, where Jean is — or isn’t — visited by a spirit which must be assuaged by a very special ritual.
Szu-Feng Chen’s design of blue toned curtains, combined with David Roy’s lighting, sets the chilly Arctic tone effectively and artfully.
“Sila” is a fine of blend of entertainment and education, a strong statement for us to realize that what we do and the actions we take here when it comes to the environment will have strong effects elsewhere — including the most vulnerable populations of the world.
The Underground Railway Theatre production of “Sila.” Written by Chantal Bilodeau. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Sets, Szu-Feng Chen., Lights, David Roy., Costumes, Albulena Borovci. Sound, Emily Auciello. Puppet design, David Fichter. Spoken word poetry, Taqralik Partridge. At the Central Square Theatre through May 25. http://www.centralsquaretheater.org.