There’s a lot of new ground covered in Alanna Mitchell’s solo show, Sea Sick. It’s the first show of the Theatre Centre’s 2014 season, and the first at the centre’s new home at the Carnegie Library. It’s also the first show Theatre Centre’s artistic director Franco Boni has directed in 12 years—he helms this production alongside the company’s artistic director in residence, Ravi Jain. It’s the theatrical debut of Mitchell, a daily reporter for The Globe and Mail turned globetrotting ocean explorer. Sea Sick also provides an opportunity for many in the audience to truly appreciate for the first time the staggering damage that global warming has caused the Earth’s oceans, and the grim future that will mean for life in the water and on land.
Adapted from her bestselling book of the same name, Sea Sick is less a play and more a very informal, and sometimes even light-hearted, lecture. With the help of Boni and Jain, it’s intriguingly structured: we begin with Mitchell’s childhood in Regina and her early love of Darwin, and look at how the disparate personal interests of her parents contributed to the formation of this show. When more nitty-gritty science is introduced, Mitchell has engaging stories to go along with it—accidentally drinking ocean poison, watching a coral reef have sex with itself, a very unfortunate incident at the bottom of the ocean with a George Clooney lookalike—that keep us, for lack of a better word, hooked. These moments of levity aren’t simply entertaining, though: they allow the sombre moments to hit even harder, perhaps because the difference in tone is so vast, or because Mitchell’s humorous anecdotes underscore an underlying connection between her story and the story of the ocean. Often, it’s both.
Luckily, Mitchell seems to have taken to the stage nearly as easily as she did to the water. She’s a natural storyteller: relaxed yet authoritative, well-rehearsed but nimble enough to rightfully call out a ringing cellphone. She relishes her memories of childhood, depicting her 1960s prairie upbringing as pretty idyllic, despite the indoor smoking. She is able to shift near-seamlessly between moments of wry cringing at the more humiliating moments in the story, and respectfully sombreness. In fact, as willing as she is to laugh at her own mistakes, not once does Mitchell ever allow the same note of flippancy to enter into her discussion of the ocean—even during the previously mentioned coral reproduction scene. As the audience giggles at Mitchell’s description of the coral’s sexual energy, it’s not comic relief to her. She’s very theatrical, but not irreverent.
There are only a few moments in the show in which the technicalities threaten to overcome Mitchell’s natural grasp of the storytelling, but she’s aided by a moving moment involving a piece of chalk and a jug of vinegar, and a significant equation written on the chalkboard behind her. Sometimes, even the slightest lighting cue (designed by Rebecca Picherak) can act as a theatrical footnote, providing a kind of thematic grounding for her scientific discoveries.
Mitchell’s story ends on a note that’s hopeful (she went through a period of depression after learning the truth about the oceans’ health, so we wouldn’t have to), if a bit little wonky, with a speech about quests and Lord of the Rings. But Sea Sick is must-see theatre for reasons much deeper than an entertaining night out.