Nowadays, it’s tough not to feel worried, paranoid or in need of some escapist relief from the steady flow of news out of Washington.
Miami playwright Theo Reyna feels your pain. His response is “Firemen Are Rarely Necessary,” a jet-black satire now getting its Mad Cat Theatre Company world premiere at Miami Theater Center’s Sand Box.
The play takes intricately aimed pot shots at a host of targets: the Tweeter in Chief and his progeny, Florida’s pro-business governor, the pushback on climate change, toleration of environmental damage, profitable collusion between government and private enterprise, the state’s vanishing film and television industry.
Yes, that’s a lot of ground (and sea level rise) to cover in a piece running under two hours including intermission. But for anyone who, like Reyna, is a South Floridian peering into a future that looks like a gathering storm, “Firemen” will resonate.
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Director Paul Tei and his creative Mad Cat collaborators are again forging original work aimed at a 21st century audience accustomed to the sensory bombardment of on-demand video, music and more. Though it’s a play that moves back and forth in time, “Firemen” incorporates original post-apocalyptic video that ominously kicks the piece off.
The play centers on the travails of Dr. Mara Lowe-Cumbre (Deborah L. Sherman), a senior research fellow at the Florida State Center for Climate Studies.
In a speech to the Florida Oceans and Coastal Council, she warns that excess nitrogen and phosphorous in toxic wastewater – predominantly from sugar refineries, chicken farms and paper mills – is eroding the limestone bedrock underneath the state’s thin layer of sandy soil.
And she dares to utter the banned term “climate change” (a phrase actually prohibited in official state communications under Gov. Rick Scott), whereupon a mysterious man named Jay Goldwater (Jordon Armstrong) shows up to fire her and confiscate all of her state-funded research.
Mara has trouble at home, too. Her live-in boyfriend Rich (Armstrong again) is an actor consumed with his audition for a made-in-Florida series called “The Swamp.” Mara, who is enough older (though not quite cougar-like) that Rich calls her “Mama,” has little to no interest in his career. Nor does her young narcissist give a hoot about hers. Why these two ever were or still are together is a dramaturgical issue that Reyna needs to solve.
The chief evildoer in “Firemen” is simply called The Governor (Noah Levine), though lest anyone mistake who this governor is, the actor has shaved his head and late in the play is derisively called “Sick Rot.”
With his right-hand woman The Lawyer (Maha McCain), the Governor has devised a plot to hurry the sinking of the state so that all that will remain is a series of Keys-like islands upon which the rich can thrive. One of those developers is a certain president, who sends his party-on son Brody (Armstrong, playing an amalgam of Trumpian offspring) to seal a deal.
All the Governor needs is a hurricane, which will distribute the toxic waste faster, and Mother Nature obliges with the first-in-history Category 11 storm Hurricane Marco, which zig-zags its way up the state, soon leaving almost nothing that isn’t under water. Mara is, justifiably, afraid for her life – until she is at last ushered into the presence of the Governor, a scheming lunatic no longer tethered to his twisted version of reality.
Befitting such a chilling-if-amusing cautionary tale, the set and lighting by designer David Nail sets up an environment in which darkness predominates. Sound designer Matt Corey supplies the freight-train roar of the hurricane, a manatee’s unnatural cry and the other signals of nature run amok. Costume designer Karelle Levy supplies outfits as different as a traditional (though pink) business suit for McCain as the administrator of Miami’s Office of Environmental Protection to found-fashion chic for Mara as she journeys from what once was Miami to waterlogged Tampa. The film of on-the-run Mara’s secret interview is by Ted Chambers and Tei.
Tonally, the performances range from earnest (Sherman’s smart, courageous Mara) to crazed (Levine’s raging Governor, who articulates far better than Scott) to versatile satire (McCain in five roles, Armstrong in four). Reyna and Tei want those differences, but the play might sting more effectively if Sherman employed some sly humor and Levine pulled back to become merely calculating now and then.
As with most new plays, “Firemen” is a piece with virtues and flaws. Further work on the Mara-Rich relationship might help. Scuttling the whole film-TV tax incentives thread would keep the focus more squarely on manipulated climate change and government-business collusion. Nature-as-avenger abruptly ends the play, but surely something more powerful is lurking in Reyna’s considerable imagination.
ArtburstMiami.com is a non-profit source of theater, dance, music and performing arts news.
If you go
What: ‘Firemen Are Rarely Necessary’ by Theo Reyna.
Where: Mad Cat Theatre Company production in the SandBox at Miami Theater Center, 9806 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, through July 16.
Cost: $30 (students, seniors and industry tickets $15, Thursday and Sunday only).