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Saturday, July 20, 2024

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PerformanceStage ReviewA time-jumping tale of environmental degradation in 'Garuda's Wing'

A time-jumping tale of environmental degradation in ‘Garuda’s Wing’

Gripping tale and great ensemble work from Magic Theatre drive home heavy subject without bumper sticker platitudes.

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A little something about me: I hate golf courses. I’m indifferent to the game of golf, but I hate what a golf course represents. It’s a deliberate destruction of irreplaceable land for the sake of installing environment-killing “natural” lawns to be used as exclusive playgrounds for the super-rich. That land that could be used for housing or returned to the Indigenous people who occupied it, not for country clubs that may or may not still exclude women and PoC. Golf courses suck.

There’s no mention of golf courses in Naomi Iizuka’s play Garuda’s Wing (world premiere through June 23 at Magic Theatre at Fort Mason Center, SF), but I’d like to think the characters would agree. Quite a few of them ponder the fact that the organic environment is routinely razed, paved over, and resold as Organic™ to the masses. It wasn’t a deliberate choice for me to see it at the start of what will probably be the warmest summer on record, but here we are.

Nor did I expect the turns the story would take. It begins with all the makings of an environmental rom-com (think the movie Medicine Man with Sean Connery and Lorraine Bracco), with the expectation that our two leads—the gruff jungle expert and the soft city slicker—will eventually wind up in the sack together. But that’s not where Iizuka takes it. Instead, she takes it to a place that’s as tragic for the characters as it is for the environment they occupy.

The title from the resilient flower of the same name that grows in Borneo (indigenously known as “Kalimantan”), where our story takes place. We begin in 1998, with seasoned war photographer Michael Suarez (Magic and Campo Santo regular Juan Amador) assigned to document the work of Jane Goodall-esque orangutan scientist Dr. Ellen Sewell (Nora el Samahy of Golden Thread Productions). Despite Suarez having seen human conflict in its most gruesome forms, he’s still taken aback by how casually Sewell removes a bloody leech from under her shirt.

Juan Amador in ‘Garuda’s Wing.’ Photo by Jay Yamada

Suarez, like a great many environmental activists, admires Sewell’s work, but is put off by her cynical attitude about humanity as a species. Sewell’s cynicism is the result of having seen the damage the “progress” of humanity has done to nature. When self-avowed agnostic Suarez tries to “both sides” deforestation and credit the advances made by “men of progress”, Sewell calls them what they were: “men with guns.” The natural dangers and remedies of the wild are diluted or destroyed by greedy industrialists who think it’s better to sell the remedies than let them be.

We see what she means when the story jumps ahead to 2024, and the very spot where Sewell’s tent once stood is now the site of a spa where the affluent can eat-pray-love away from the rest of their first-world problems (and without having to see any dirty locals, Heaven forbid!). One such client, young Diah Imazumi (the alwayswatchable Kina Kantor) arrives with both physical and emotional baggage in tow. She knew Dr. Sewell personally, but now has to resolve those memories with the pre-packaged “legacy” spewed out by spa rep Alice (Mia Tagano).

And that’s not even mentioning how we hop back in time to meet disheveled researcher Julia Barrett (local treasure Catherine Catellanos) and then jump forward to 2058, where business exec Grace (Jeunée Simon) is weighed down by the pressures of her job, her social standing, and a world on the brink.

I’m intentionally trying not to spoil the major numerous twists of the story, but I will say this: in spite of its grim, apocalyptic tone, Garuda’s Wing isn’t at all nihilistic. If anything, its characters care so much about what they do and what impact they leave on the world that it drives them to extremes. In particular, they’re concerned about the memories that linger; what ghosts continue to occupy their space. Every one of them is concerned about what they’ve inherited and what they leave behind, even when they realize that they’re part of the problem making things worse.

It’s a pro-environmentalist tale that refuses to get bogged down in bumper-sticker platitudes (no wonder Sewell hates all the “fans” that apotheosize her), but rather focus on the people who inherited this broken world. One can easily become lost in the woods, but there’s always someone to pick up their trail.

Jeunée Simon in ‘Garuda’s Wing.’ Photo by Jay Yamada

Iizuka certainly found the right travelling companion in director Margo Hall. The local star once again proves herself to be one of Bay Area theatre’s greatest MVPs as she conducts her cast towards heartbreaking emotional sincerity. There’s neither a wasted line of dialogue nor an unbalanced moment of blocking as Hall gracefully guides her cast across Tanya Orellana’s exotic set (with video projection by Joan Osato). At roughly 90 minutes with no intermission, the play never overstays its welcome, and the performances make you eager to find out what happens to these characters when they step off-stage. Great work all around.

I’d planned to see the show opening night, but had to postpone when my then-housemates infected me with my second-ever bout of COVID. After two weeks of quarantine and one stress-laden residential move, this was the first live show I’d seen in June. There was no stated mask requirement, but the curtain speech voiceover by Hall did ask that they stay on, which I appreciated. My Aranet4’s CO² readings peaked at 1282ppm by the end of the intermission-free show.

In fact, watching the show made me think of the ways we’re now in more danger of the still-ongoing pandemic, as the highest level of protection is now reserved for the affluent, whereas the rest of us are forced back to work. I’m not one for homeopathics, but I do wonder what kind of legit COVID treatment could be found in the amount of rainforest land that has to be destroyed just to mine Bitcoin?

I wouldn’t call Garuda’s Wing “optimistic” by any means, but I did appreciate how it charged humanity with the ability to improve as much as it was rightfully blamed for the destruction it’s caused. It’s a gripping show about how the affluent few have ruined things for the rest of us on this one world at our disposal, subtly encouraging we masses to take power back before it’s too late. It’s a well-acted and -directed piece on how we’re all capable of doing the unthinkable when we believe it’s right. I dare say it’s one of the best shows of the year thus far.

GARUDA’S WING’s world premiere runs through June 23 at Magic Theatre in the Fort Mason Center, SF. Tickets and further info here.

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Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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