Warona Setshwaelo A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction

A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction is sobering yet hopeful

For a show about mass death, Miranda Rose Hall’s play expertly avoids plunging its audience into insurmountable existential dread.

For a show about mass death, A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction expertly avoids plunging its audience into insurmountable existential dread.

The Canadian premiere of this piece by American playwright Miranda Rose Hall, which is on now at Centaur Theatre, even manages to get several satisfying laughs in despite the subject matter. There is a solemnity to the production, directed by Rose Plotek, which is undeniably warranted in a conversation on climate change and its impacts on wildlife, but the message it leaves the viewer with is one of hope, not despair. 

Though it is for all intents and purposes a play, it is structured in such a way that it feels more like a conversation, or perhaps a quirky TED Talk. Warona Setshwaelo plays Naomi, the dramaturg for an environmentally-oriented theatre company who is forced to do the play alone when the two actors — and the only other members of the company — don’t show up. 

Naomi decides to improvise rather than stick to the script, presenting the findings of her extensive research into the history of extinction on Earth. Speaking directly to the audience, she recaps the five previous mass death events that have occurred on this planet, and shares an alarming fact with viewers: we are currently experiencing the sixth mass death event. 

Two-thirds of the world’s wildlife species have gone extinct in the last 50 years, she says. With each passing year, the list of species that have died out gets longer. Yet in such a reality, we collectively lack the ability to talk about death. We don’t know how to address extinction, so we don’t. 

And so A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction comes in as a remedy to this. Through (minor) audience participation, those of us in the crowd are not left passively watching a play unfold onstage. We are invited to remember that we are all complicit in the human activity that continues to contribute to the worsening of climate change. We are invited to remember that there is no pretending mass extinction #6 doesn’t implicate us. 

Naomi is knowledgeable but approachable. She is concerned, but she is not preachy. She is equal parts funny and sobering, without which the play could not achieve its goal of starting a frank and meaningful dialogue about extinction without leaving viewers paralyzed by the enormity of the issue. 

Setshwaelo is remarkable for the ease with which she engaged the audience and managed the improvisation that comes with that. Alone in a play with understated visual effects, she successfully commands the viewers’ attention throughout the production. It’s a lot to ask of an actor, and she delivers. 

What visual effects there are help to illustrate and visualize Naomi’s storytelling: the dying off of seagrass in the Chesapeake Bay, or the heat of the sun that warmed the oceans and caused one of the Earth’s previous mass extinction events. The stage and audience are boxed in by panels of translucent fabric, giving the space a sort of classroom feel but with walls that seem to fade away as the subject matter turns to the world outside. It effectively mimics one of the central tenets of the play: we are never away from nature. 

With A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, Centaur Theatre is ending its 53rd season on a high note. It’s ending with an honest but hopeful and important discussion about the future we’re headed towards, and the death we will inevitably have to witness on the way. In 2022, this play feels more necessary than ever before. ■

A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction continues through May 15. For more information and to buy tickets, please visit the Centaur Theatre website.

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