Leigh Fondakowski has created several theater pieces based on interviews and documentary-style presentations, including The Laramie Project, about the 1998 gay-bashing death of Matthew Shepard. Fondakowski and visual artist Reeva Wortel presented a workshop production of Spill at NOCCA last week, and it is full of colorful and real characters, including managers and technicians aboard the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010 when the rig exploded; the father of Gordon Jones, who died in the disaster; and fishermen who lost their livelihoods and volunteered to do cleanup work. The piece also includes excerpts from congressional testimony.
The testimony, coupled with staging in which many characters talk directly to the audience and rarely to each other, makes the piece feel like a disjointed courtroom drama. Many of the monologues, both personal narratives and technical explanations, are riveting, particularly as the drilling operation broke down. As a whole, the piece is a concise account of the disaster and the two years afterward. But that's a lot of material to cover, and in its current state, the performance lasts nearly three hours, including a 10-minute intermission. Fondakowski wrote a very focused and vividly detailed script, but for as much drama as it includes, it's not a very dramatic piece of theater.
It must have taken an extraordinary effort to cull through more than 20 interviews and hundreds of pages and hours of recorded testimony to craft this story, balancing technical and historical detail with personal accounts. It's a very impressive report.
The workshop cast read from a script, but many strong characters emerged. Narrator Kelli Simpkins did an amazing job juggling authentic-sounding South Louisiana accents for many distinct characters. Jamie Wax animated an entertaining disaster guru in University of California at Berkeley engineer Robert Bea. Silas Cooper handled fishermen, Native Americans and the father of Jones very well. Donald Watkins was an oysterman and local politician as well as a rig operator, and Kesha McKey played EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.
It's hard to guess the reaction and interest of an audience not as familiar with south Louisiana or the day-to-day stress the disaster caused. Being familiar with those events, I thought it was solid on many fronts: the facts of the case, perspective on the industry and its history in coastal Louisiana, the voices of some of those affected, the impact on their lives not just during the 87 days before the well was capped but long afterward. Spill is scheduled for a more finalized production at LSU in two weeks. As an engaging account of the nation's worst environmental disaster, it deserves great attention. — Will Coviello