Play: Beware what lies beneath

Disaster Preparation
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  May 9, 2012

TJI_below_main
WARNINGS FROM UNDERGROUND A scene from Below and Beyond, about the chemicals beneath our feet.
The US Bureau of Land Management estimates that 90 percent of existing natural-gas wells in this country use hydraulic fracturing techniques — commonly known as "fracking" — that inject pressurized water and toxic chemicals into the ground. Where does this carcinogenic cocktail, which may include iodine-130, krypton, and other radioactive goodies, go from there? How much do we really need to care about anything we've caused to happen once it's out of our sight? That's the question at the heart of Below and Beyond, a touring play of puppets, pulleys, and people that explores the intricacies of what goes on under us. Co-created by Beth Nixon and Sarah Lowry, directed by Donna Sellinger, and featuring a score written and performed by Portland's own accordionist Matthew Schreiber, Below and Beyond runs at SPACE Gallery for one night only, on Saturday, May 12.

"There's a tendency for us as human beings to remove ourselves from what's going on below us," says Nixon, a native of West Philadelphia. "But what's going on down there is intimately connected to our survival." Inspired by both the national fracking boom in Appalachia's Marcellus Shale bed and the enduring problems associated with a West Philadelphia river, Mill Creek (which was obliterated in 1869 by a sewer pipe, leading parts of the neighborhood above to collapse), Below and Beyond urges us to take a vertical rather than a horizontal view, Nixon explains, of our actions on the planet.

In creating Below and Beyond, Nixon (of the clown and puppet operation Ramshackle Enterprises) and Lowry (of the experimental theater company Missoula Oblongata) drew on interviews with elders of Mill Creek, research into West Philly "landscape literacy," and the work of the Pennsylvania grassroots alliance Protecting Our Waters. The play that developed takes an absurdist approach to environmental and social crisis, Nixon says, with clown-show characters representing a range of exaggerated Every(wo)men, all manifesting different ideas about how to survive the disasters we've wrought. What the play is not, she emphasizes, is a utopian prescription. Below and Beyond takes catastrophe as a starting point for its house boat-, tree house-, and bunker-dwellers. As Nixon puts it, "It's a showcase of what happens when the shit hits the fan."

  Topics: This Just In , Beth Nixon
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