Review: "Climate Fables: Debating Extinction" Offers a Vivid Fairy Tale for the End Times

Climate Fables: Debating Extinction

Written by Padraig Bond

Directed by Padraig Bond and Torch Ensemble

Presented by Torch Ensemble at UNDER St. Marks

94 St. Marks Place, Manhattan, NYC

April 3-17, 2024

Penelope Deen and Kristen Hoffman. Photo by Terrell Lopez
Geologists may have recently rejected the Anthropocene as a unit of geologic time, but even in doing so, they acknowledged its usefulness in thinking about what has brought the world to its current climate crisis. Playwright Padraig Bond's Climate Fables: Debating Extinction peers compellingly into the apocalyptic future of the Anthropocene and wonders not only whether the age of humankind will continue but also whether it should. Debating Extinction played the 2024 New York City Fringe Festival–which features 46 plays over multiple venues and gives 100% of ticket sales to the artists–in repertory with a second climate fable titled The Trash Garden, a comedic twist on Adam and Eve in which the two remaining human beings on Earth play games in the rubble left by a vanished species; Debating Extinction has added an encore performance on April 17th.

A young woman named Susan (Penelope Deen) begins the play with promises and declarations of love to her unborn child. She is joined onstage by a pale woman dressed in brown, whom we later learn is Susan's mother, Miranda (Kristen Hoffman), wielding a staff and pronouncing incantations. Susan lives with her mother in what Miranda at one point describes as hiding, subsisting on, and in harmony with, the land and separated from the rest of a U.S. population radically reduced by floods, rising sea levels, volcanos, and more. Miranda quizzes Susan on past extinctions (reminding us that we either don't think or, worse, don't care, that, despite the Western conviction of eternal progress, mass extinction events are certainly not relegated to the distant past) and warns her that a storm is coming, which proves true both literally and otherwise.

Penelope Deen and Luis Feliciano. Photo by Terrell Lopez
Miranda lives by the credo that humanity deserves extinction, and she admonishes her daughter more than once that she is too young to remember the "atrocities" committed by her species. Susan, as suggested by the pregnancy that she has not yet revealed to her mother, holds different views. Susan also has not told her mother that she has resumed contact with a peer named Teddy (Luis Feliciano)–whence the pregnancy, a more or less unheard-of event in their world–with whom Susan grew up and from whom Miranda separated Susan when the two young people developed a romantic interest in one another. Teddy and Susan obviously have different plans for the future than Miranda, and when Teddy arrives from a long absence a week earlier than Susan expected, those visions inevitably collide.

The show engages with questions of human nature and humanity's relationship with nature (although that phrase itself assumes a false binary)–the adaptability, curiosity, and resilience that Teddy praises alongside the proclivity for violence, exploitation, and narcissistic short-sightedness, linked to the question of whether the literally disastrous consequences of our actions could actually, at some future point, humble or change us in any meaningful way. Beyond, although not divorced from, such environmental concerns, Susan represents a woman trying to find her own voice and volition while caught between patriarchal attitudes on the one side and an overprotective mother on the other. Even an eco-witch like Miranda needs to let her child make her own way in the world eventually, however dangerous that world may be. The production richly evokes its future, complementing the images conjured by the dialogue with minimal props and effective use of sound, from the ambient noise of insects to the lashings of the storm when it arrives. The cast does great work, with Feliciano building on and undercutting our first impression of Teddy and Deen and Hoffman imparting nuance, depth, and intensity both to their characters and to the conflict between them. Audiences now have an additional chance to see Debating Extinction, which is more than humankind may get with the planet, so leave the debating to Teddy, Miranda, and Susan, and go see this surprising, absorbing, witchy, and wonderful fable.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

More from the 2024 New York City Fringe Festival:

News: FRIGID New York Announces Schedule of Performances for New York City Fringe Festival, April 3-21

Review: “Conversations with My Divorce Attorney,” or All My Little Words


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