Have you ever met a human manifestation of the ozone layer before?
I hadn’t either, but upon viewing Terry McKinstry’s 70 Million Tons, my answer to that question will never be the same. And it’s for the better. We spend plenty of time personifying the planet (Earth Day, Mother Earth, etc.), but to give a theatrical presence to a specific layer of the Earth’s atmosphere? It’s a nice touch, especially when said layer is getting absolutely tarnished by humans and isn’t exactly visible when looking up at the sky.
Neither is God, who plays a predictably prominent role in this story. Stephanie Williams is a fresh update on any godly image you may have hiding in that brain of yours, and She carries Her lines with an unassuming candor and intensity, even as they are very funny. Viewers of the play conditioned by traditional portrayals of God (old, male, white) may even find the need to remind themselves that this is God talking, after all.
In fact, you will find yourself doing a lot of reminding during the first half of this play. Without giving away anything, there’s a lot going on here. It is a play that is just as much about theatre as it is about the environment, and multiple theatrical realities are the norm here.
Ever seen “Click”? Ever seen “Inception”? Imagine a blackbox environmental lovechild of the two with an improved script, an imagination, and a cast that, for the most part, is intricately aware of what it’s up to. If it weren’t so multi-layered, it could even be described as allegorical, as each actor is playing a role that responds to the assumptions of what their character looks like.
And then there’s the fictional director of these characters, Billie, who might be thought of as the middle-woman between the rest of the cast and God (If this seems confusing, welcome to Seventy Million Tons). As a character who is always nodding to Shakespeare (Willie or Billie, his influence is everlasting), Billie must constantly navigate the rules of this behemoth of a world, even if there aren’t any to begin with. There are constant jokes and references to The Tempest, which is appropriate as it is arguably the most “meta” of all of Shakespeare’s works. Wait until you see the boat.
Yes, McKinstry has managed to give us the best of both worlds in this play: it is the theatre of the environment, yet also the environment of the theatre. It is highly advanced, and it can be intensely confusing, but discerning viewers interested in how theatre can change reality will be intrigued and rewarded by this full-fledged effort at all levels.
Overall, the set design and wardrobe accessories were rather bare, but these kinds of logistical choices take a backseat to the script and the acting. Say what you want about the structure of McKinstry’s metafictional marathon (and believe me, you will), but the take-home value of 70 Million Tons lies in its ability to comment on environmental issues ironically. We all know global warming is a problem, except we all don’t. The title embodies this perfectly: it’s not “seventy million tons” of anything, it’s just 70 Million Tons. As Billie encourages her actors throughout this spectacle, it’s about figuring out how to deal with uncertainty on a personal level.
Oh, and make sure to throw away your water bottle at the end of this play, even though it won’t end up mattering if you don’t. Thanks.
70 Million Tons has 7 more performances at Capital Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street, SE, Washington, DC.