Perpetua (Kathy Randels), a woman in eccentric if not slightly frumpy garb, sings a song based on the tongue-twister "She sells seashells by the seashore." Her tone is somber, but the woman does in fact sell shells to tourists, including the gleeful Mr. Herbert (Jeffrey Gunshol), in a scene that miniaturizes one of the changes in their surreal home, a magically realized vision of New Orleans. There also is a fleeting hint of attraction between the two in Sea of Common Catastrophe, an ensemble-generated show by Jeff Becker and ArtSpot Productions, currently running at UNO's Robert E. Nims Theatre.
Sea of Common Catastrophe is an abstract, figurative work about New Orleans and some of its inhabitants, who are drawn to the sea and affected by it. Clara (Mahalia Abeo Tibbs) listens to the voice of Dona Tea (provided by local storyteller Adella Gautier), and she seems to be on a mission to understand her place in the world, as the voice instructs her to build a sea by filling a bowl with tears every day. Perpetua sells her shells and lives a life suddenly changed by the arrival of Mr. Herbert, who eagerly plunks down over-size bills for shells and imbibes with the locals, including Tobias (Lisa Moraschi Shattuck).
Becker is a visual artist who has designed sets and props for many ArtSpot shows, including outdoor works such as Loup Garou and Cry You One. He's also directed shows for the company, and he conceived and directed Sea of Common Catastrophe. He was inspired by the Gabriel Garcia Marquez story Sea of Lost Time, in which a town is suddenly submerged under water but the townspeople go about their lives as usual. The play is set in New Orleans, established by video projections (by Courtney Egan) of familiar buildings and signs, as well as brass band musicians.
The center of Becker's set is a moving spectacle of scaffolding that allows for a two-story block of rooms, including Mr. Herbert's upstairs hotel room. He leads a disco party from the room, in one of the show's most vibrant scenes, featuring a disco ball, video projections, performers in silhouette and more. The stage also uses one edge as a seaside dock, where Clara comes to contemplate the sea and Mr. Hebert eventually launches a raft.
This New Orleans seems to be a seaside town, and Perpetua, Clara and Tobias sing and dance in an homage to their connection to the sea, invoking it as a sort of spiritual universe. They try to adjust as the city goes underwater, but there also are social and economic changes.
While the moving scaffolding is slick, the show also uses simple and scruffy props like cardboard boxes to keep a grounded, salt-of-the-earth feel. Clara pulls a diary from one box, and personal effects stored in rumpled cardboard evoke the play's focus on memory and preservation.
Performances are assured, and the show is polished. Gunshol choreographed the work and Sean LaRocca created the music.
The set and effects are smart but not overstated. The piece has emotionally resonant moments about soul searching and perseverance. Some scenes seem to be about setting a mood more than telling a story, and the piece can feel too introverted, as in some longer dance scenes and songs. The show is often poetic but also at times elusive.