Thomas Burns Scully
- OnStage New York Critic
‘Echoes of Ebola’ is a good play, but a frustrating one. It’s a show that does a good many things right and has the potential to be a game-changing piece of political theatre, like ‘The International’ that graced the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre last year. On those same boards now, however, ‘Echoes’ succeeds only in being good. Which is, as should be evident given how antonyms work, not bad. Plenty of plays have failed where ‘Echoes’ has pulled through and created compelling drama, but it has fallen short of attainable greatness. When working in its wheelhouse, it’s an excellent political thriller that twists and turns with the best of them. However it also has a tendency to get bogged down in facile emotional cliches, and an unwillingness to fully explore its central argument. Overall, then, this play reaches around seventy percent of what it’s capable of. Whistleblower Theatre are one to watch, but they have yet to reach their full potential.
Sarah Yuen and Jack Gilliat have penned the script for ‘Echoes of Ebola’ with a mind towards being timely, political, and controversial. It is set in an unnamed African country, where an unnamed virus is wiping out swathes of the population. Teams of scientists from different pharmaceutical companies are racing for a vaccine across the country. We meet once such team: Aisha Laboru and Aidan Jones played by Santoya Fields and Daniel Damiano respectively. Aisha is a local female scientist full of promise and hope, Aidan is a cynical older American scientist. She longs for a more empowered life, and the opportunity to do real good for her country, but also feels the need to honor the stifling traditions of her family. Into this walks Ned (played by Jack Gilliat), a young aspiring journalist looking for his first big scoop. He begins investigating the lab and its personnel, whilst also taking a look at the local international aid office. There he meets aid officiant Joy Cartwright (played by Joan D. Saunders) who starts to spill some local secrets. As he probes deeper he begins to realize just how far the rabbit hole goes.
We have to begin with the positive here, because the show has a genuine strength about it that deserves acknowledgement. When in full ‘political thriller’ mode, the show flies. Conspiracy and layers of deception are unmade, bitter ugliness is revealed, and it’s lean forward in your chair time. The cast too, are generally good. Gilliat’s idealism in Ned, and Damiano’s world-beaten callousness, in particular, make for excellent viewing. Their choice of subject matter is also bold. Plenty are content to read foreign news like its science-fiction and go about their day. To use theatre to bring immediacy to those stories is a time honored cause that never stops being a healthy use of time. All this makes ‘Echoes’ a worthy piece of theatre.
However, when the show is not in its stride, its problems bubble like teenage acne. Pacing is all over the place. ‘Echoes’ is around two hours long and could easily be an hour and a half. Several superfluous character scenes slow plotting to crawl. The scene transitions too, add about fifteen minutes to the run time. Either the writers or director Zenon Kruszelnicki have decided that full set changes are needed for every locale in the play, which entail the switching of almost every single piece of scenery between every scene. These transitions take two-three minutes each, and there are a lot of them. It’s a technical issue that drags the action to a standstill repeatedly, and feels like it could so easily have been avoided.
That said, the biggest stumbling points are in the script. ‘Echoes’ is working very hard to be an informed, savvy, “I’m going to rock your world with facts” theatre piece. But the research feels lacking. It raises some great points about FDA practices and international medical law… and yet easily disproved anti-vaccination facts are spouted like gospel. And vaccinations are confused with cures. And while the premise of a government cover up over population control is fascinating, it eventually becomes too far-fetched to read as anything more than an internet conspiracy theory. Then there’s the script’s central conflict: government intervention in population vs. individual freedom. It’s “rights of the individual” agenda is spot-on, but only lip-service is paid to the Malthusian camp. The writers aren’t brave enough to truly entertain the idea that their argument might be wrong, and so the play can never offer a balanced discussion. That’s what holds it back the most. Like I said, when the play works, it works well, but a much better play is inside it, fighting to get out. One free of these trappings.
Overall then, this feels like an evolved workshop performance. I would like to see the play go through a development process, because I genuinely believe that with all the nuts and bolts tightened, it could be an earth-shaking, knife-to-the-heart experience. As it is now, it’s just a step or so above entertaining. Whistleblower are an admirable company who have yet to hit full stride, and I look forward to whatever they do next. they have a knack for choosing good actors and directors, but their theatrical voice is still in its infancy. When they develop that, however, they are certain to go viral.
‘Echoes of Ebola’ ran at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre from 9 – 18 June 2016. It was written by Sarah Yuen and Jack Gilliat, directed by Zenon Kruszelnicki and produced by Whistleblower Productions. For more information, see whistleblowernewyork.com.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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