‘Extreme Whether’ – Climate Denial and Faultlines In America


“Extreme Whether,” a new “eco-drama” written and directed by Karen Malpede, centers on an embattled American climate scientist living in an idyllic wilderness estate on the Northeast Coast. Set during the record-hot summers of 2004 and 2012, the play pits the scientist against his twin sister in a no-holds barred family struggle over land ownership and the future use of their wilderness estate. In one corner is John Bjornson, a composite of famous climatologists. In the other is his twin sister, Jeanne, an energy spokeswoman married to a skeptical lobbyist. Actor Jeff McCarthy (“Cheers,” “Urinetown,” “Chicago”) heads the cast of six as the scientist. Theater Three Collaborative and Theater for the New City will present the work at TNC October 2 to 26, 2014, directed by the author.

In the play, the family struggle over the wilderness estate and its future reveals the fault lines in America today over land usage, global warming and “climate denial.” Supporting John’s struggle over the land are the caretaker of the estate, a man named Uncle (played by George Bartenieff); John’s precocious 13 year-old daughter (played by Kathleen Purcell) and a young ice scientist with an important new theory (played by Di Zhu). Opposing them are John’s sister Jeanne (played by Ellen Fiske) and her energy lobbyist husband (played by Alex Tavis).

EXTREME WHETHER Jeff McCarthy and Di Zhu as climate scientists. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Playwright Karen Malpede is known for fearlessly addressing urgent issues in every play, from genetic engineering (in “Better People”) to the U.S. torture program (in “Another Life”). She views Global Warming and its facilitator, Climate Denial, as the most urgent issues of our time and admires the courage of scientists to speak out and guide us. To bring these issues to the stage, she adopted the Ibsenist paradigm (seen in “An Enemy of the People” and “Rosmerholm”) of setting struggles of the public interest as conflicts within a family.

The characters and plot of this play are informed by the books, lives and research of several contemporary scientists. Jeff McCarthy’s character, the scientist named John Bjornson, is largely based on Dr. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who testified to congress in 1988 that global warming had begun. Other influences are the life and work of Dr. Michael Mann, author of “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”; Dr. Jennifer Francis, a researcher on the rapidly melting Arctic ice and its effect on the elongation of the Jet Stream, and Dr. Tyrone Hayes, a researcher on the effects of the herbicide Atrazine. For further information on these sources, please see these author’s notes by Karen Malpede.

Actor Jeff McCarthy, who is widely known for “Cheers” and Broadway’s “Urinetown,” “Chicago” and “Beauty and the Beast,” is also staking out a reputation for “activist” roles. Last year, he created the title character in “Kunstler” by Jeffrey Sweet, a play about the radical civil rights attorney, William Kunstler, in its debut production at Hudson Stage, which is slated to become a film. McCarthy is ardent on the subject of climate change. Tall and lanky, he even bears a resemblance to Dr. James Hansen, on whom the character of John is largely based.

The play is language- and character-based, which stands it in contrast with many current plays on contemporary controversial issues, which tend to rely on interview techniques and employ docudrama. George Bartenieff, who plays Uncle, praised Jeff McCarthy for taking the role of John, saying “For what Karen [Malpede] has written, you need the skills that actors used to have. Now we have a male actor who has these skills and represents more traditional theater. It lifts everybody up. He understands the play and the richness of its characters.”

Believing that an engaged, poetic theater is essential to a healthy and functioning democracy, Theater Three Collaborative produces Festivals of Conscience alongside its productions. These are post-play events where esteemed authors, activists and experts interact with playgoers face-to-face in a public forum on the play’s issues. Drs. James Hansen and Jennifer Francis will participate in the Festival of Conscience accompanying “Extreme Whether,” joined by other public intellectuals in the field of climate change.

FESTIVAL OF CONSCIENCE (schedule in formation)

Oct 2 – Columbia Professor Todd Gitlin on Fossil Fuel Divestment.

Oct 4 – Dr. Radley Horton, Columbia University and co-author of the Obama Administration’s Climate Assessment Report.

Oct 5 – Dr. Jennifer Francis, Rutgers, author of the cutting-edge theory of Arctic Ice Melt and extreme weather.

Oct 9 – Opening Night with climate prophet Dr. James Hansen, NASA scientist, who told Congress in 1988 that global warming had begun.

Oct 10 – Prof. Andrew Revkin, Pace, plays Climate Music post-show.

Oct 16 – Prof. Gerald Markowitz, John Jay College, on industry’s relationship to science.

Oct 17 – Marielle Anzelone, Urban ecologist.

Oct 18 – Dr. Jannette Barth, Why Not To Frack.

Oct 23- Prof. Ana Baptista, New School for Social Research, Environmental Justice and the Poor

Oct 24 – Charles Komanoff, Policy Analyst, on a Carbon Tax.

Oct 25- Prof. Dale Jamieson,NYU, Reason in A Dark Time

Music and sound design are by Arthur Rosen. Projection and graphic design are by Luba Lukova. Set design is by Derek Connell. Costume design is by Sally Ann Parsons. Lighting design is by Tony Giovannetti.

“Extreme Whether” had a reading produced by TNC in April, 2013 as part of a “Festival of Conscience” accompanying the TNC production of “Another Life” by Karen Malpede. That reading, attended by an overflow audience, was followed with a post-show talk by Dr. James Hansen, the NASA Climate Scientist who primarily inspired the character of John. That week, he had resigned from NASA to participate in an amicus curiae suit on climate change. The play was also developed in readings at the NY Horticultural Society, Cherry Lane Theater and Columbia University.

Who’s Who in the Production

Jeff McCarthy (John) debuted on Broadway in 1983, playing opposite Anthony Quinn in “Zorba.” He went on to play Bob Freelander in the ill-fated “Smile” the following year. In 2001, he created the role of Officer Lockstock in the original cast of the Broadway musical “Urinetown.” He played the Beast in the Broadway production of “Beauty and the Beast” and Terry in the original cast of “Side Show.” He has also appeared in Broadway’s “The Pirate Queen” and “Chicago” and played the title role in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” at Madison Square Garden. He originated the role of criminal attorney William Kunstler in Jeffrey Sweet’s “Kunstler,” which debuted at Hudson Stage. Its recording on GPR records is now available online. On TV, he created the role of Leon in “Cheers” and has appeared steadily in guest star roles on episodic TV, notably in two of the Star Trek series. He was the voice of the Chuck Jones’ creation, Michigan J. Frog, for the WB television network. His is currently appearing at the Guthrie in “My Fair Lady.”

Karen Malpede (playwright and director) is author/director of 17 plays including “Us,” “Better People,” “Blue Heaven” (all presented at TNC), “Another Life” (National Theatre of Kosovo, Gerald W. Lynch Theater, Irondale, TNC, RADA Festival, London), “The Beekeeper’s Daughter” (Dionysia Festival, Italy, Theater Row Theater), “Prophecy” (NY Theatre Workshop, New End Theatre, London) and “I Will Bear Witness” (Classic Stage Co., New End, London, English Theatre, Berlin). She is editor of “Acts of War: Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays,” “Women in Theater: Compassion & Hope” and “Three Works by the Open Theater” and author of “A Monster Has Stolen the Sun and Other Plays.” Other plays and short fiction are published by Applause, Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Healing Muse and elsewhere. Her writings on theater have been published in The New York Times, TDR, Torture Magazine, Howelround, and elsewhere. A McKnight National Playwrights’ and NYFA fellow, she co-founded Theater Three Collaborative in 1995. She has taught dramatic literature, playwriting and writing at Smith College, New York University and the CUNY-Graduate Center’s Continuing Education program. She is currently on the theater faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

George Bartenieff (Uncle) began his theater career at the age of 14 in “The Whole World Over,” directed by Harold Clurman. He has acted on Broadway (“Merchant of Venice”, “Fiddler on the Roof”), Off and Off-off, at the NYSF, and regional theaters in hundreds of new and classic plays. He was co-founder of Theater for the New City and co-founder of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. He and Karen Malpede adapted for the stage the diaries of Victor Klemperer, “I Will Bear Witness,” as a one-person play that played to acclaim in New York, London, Berlin, Washington DC and toured Europe and the U.S. for three years. He is winner of four Village Voice Obie awards, including Sustained Achievement and acting awards for his performances in Malpede’s “Us” and “I Will Bear Witness,” a Drama Desk award for the ensemble acting in David Hare’s “Stuff Happens” and a Philly as Best Actor for “Tuesday’s With Morrie” at the Wilmington Repertory Co. In 1995, he and Malpede co-founded Theater Three Collaborative.

Ellen Fiske (Jeanne, John’s sister) appeared in the Broadway production and national tour of “The Royal Family.” She has appeared widely in regional theater and on TV in “All My Children,” “Search for Tomorrow, As The World Turns” and “National Lampoon Comedy Hour.”

Alex Tavis (Frank, John’s brother-in-law) has appeared in Karen Malpede’s “Another Life,” “Ta Ziyeh of Imam Hussein” (Lincoln Center Festival) and plays and workshops at HERE, Naked Angels, Epic Theatre Ensemble, Cherry Lane, and many others. On TV, he has been seen in “One Life To Live” (recurring), “All My Children” (recurring), “Law and Order,” “L&O CI,” “Wall Street Warriors” and currently can be seen as Jake Howitzer in “Ivy League Crime Lords” (Multi Platform series).

Di Zhu (Rebecca) appeared in Karen Malpede’s “Another Life” and was Yelena in the Russian Art Theater’s “Cherry Orchard.” She is a classically trained concert pianist.

Kathleen Purcell (Anne, John’s daughter) is an activist, writer, performer and theatrical technician. She is a graduate of the Lecoq Ecole inspired London International School of Performing Arts and has since performed in Stockholm, London, and New York City.

Theater Three Collaborative, Inc. was founded in 1995 by the late Lee Nagrin, George Bartenieff and Karen Malpede to create, develop and produce poetic, character-driven plays on crucial topics of the day. The organization also creates and hosts Festivals of Conscience, talks and talkbacks with public intellectuals, activists and specialists in the fields of each play.

Theater for the New City is a Pulitzer Prize winning community cultural center and one of New York’s most prolific theatrical organizations, producing 30-40 premieres of new American plays per year, at least 10 of which are by emerging and young playwrights. TNC productions have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and over 42 OBIE Awards for excellence in every theatrical discipline. It has won the award for excellence in theater from the Ibero Americano Festival de Teatro in Bogota, Colombia; the City College Alumni Award for Excellence in Theater, the Edgar Rosenberg Award for Excellence in Theater and most recently, the Acker Award for Excellence in Nontraditional Theater. TNC is also the only Theatrical Organization to have won the Mayor’s Stop The Violence award.

“Extreme Whether” will be presented October 2 to 26, 2014, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 3:00 PM. Theater for the New City is located at 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street), New York City. Tickets are $18 general admission and $10 for students and seniors. The box office number is (212) 254-1109. Tickets can be purchased at www.theaterforthenewcity.net.

Jonathan Slaff is a New York publicist in the specialty of international cultural events. Jonathan and his writers keep us ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.