The Death of Gaia Divine, and Creation Apathy
By Jordan Scott Hardesty
In the hours before heading to the theatre, I perused the latest copy of The New Yorker, which had arrived sometime that morning. In it was a morbidly entertaining list by Ginny Hogan, “Idioms Updated For Climate Change.”
Time flies when you’re travelling at the speed of light to escape the now uninhabitable Earth.
As science continues to signal that the end is looming, our culture has developed a fascination in post-apocalyptic narratives. At its worst, the genre is overdone and boring; at its best, well… we rarely see it at its best. In a rare event, The Death of Gaia Divine outshines the rest in a humanist approach to the exhausted end of the world narrative. Directed with precision by Matthew T. Messina, this play is not just about the end of times, but it is also a campy love letter to humanity. Jacob C. Shuler, the playwright of the piece, presents a world that juxtaposes possibility with destruction.
At the start of The Death of Gaia Divine, the end refuses to happen when the godhead commands it. The deity of this world is the aging drag queen Gaia Divine (played by the alluring Raymond K. Cleveland). Gaia Divine realizes that her career as a benevolent god has faded, and so she must turn out the light of the world. Benji, who appears to be the last remaining human on Earth, also comes to the realization that the end is necessary. As the world becomes darkness, Tallulah, a babe-in-the-woods untethered from the dilapidation of the world stumbles onto the scenes. Brought on by primitive curiosity, Tallulah kisses Benji and there is an exchange that keeps the world spinning for another day.
On the surface, the Tallulah-Benji love story plays on patriarchal norms. Benji is presented as a tragic hero that feels that he alone bears the weight of the world, and perhaps he does. His woebegone existence is built on his insistence in reciting the words of “great men.” In Benji’s pantheon are Shakespeare, Twain, and Melville, to name a few. Gradually, as Tallulah devours Benji’s knowledge, she transcends her trope: she is no longer the submissive femme.
Actress Sofia Tew’s Tallulah is mesmerizing. The poetry of the play is fully realized in Tallulah’s monologue listing words that correspond to letters of the alphabet. Through her, all of the beauty of the world can be found in a single soul. Noah Laufer’s straight-delivered Benji is, at times, upstaged by Tew’s unerring charm, but the chemistry is undeniable. His tragic hero arc is meticulously crafted, with the likes of Willy Loman and Hamlet in his DNA.
Raymond K. Cleveland’s portrayal of Gaia Divine, however, makes the show. There is something beautiful–as well as terrifying–about witnessing a diva at the end of her career. See Barbara Cook. See Elaine Stritch. See Carol Channing. There is a layer of the hyperreal that audiences are forced to face. Hidden away in the divas’ performative bubbliness, there is melancholy that comes only with age. For Cleveland’s Gaia Divine, everything is performative, from gender to creation apathy. After a point, the latter can no longer be performed.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the piece was Cleveland’s emotionally-charged performance of a tune from Pal Joey. She sings “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” in the backdrop of Benji and Tallulah’s budding relationship. I couldn’t sleep, I wouldn’t sleep, when love came and told me I shouldn’t sleep. In Cleveland’s voice, the pain and age of Gaia Divine can be heard. She is, afterall, a representation of fading memories. Gaia Divine’s sequestered den (designed by Joy Ahn) is contaminated with nostalgia. Here, we see Playbills, old records, and several dresses that are worn and retired throughout the evening. It is believable that Gaia Divine is the mother of humanity. She represents the best and worst of us, and still she cannot be convinced in the greatness of man.
This is the debut production for Momentary. Throughout the evening, I could not part from the thought of what might become of this new theatre. One thing is certain, there is the possibility of greatness in this new company.
The Death of Gaia Divine
By Jacob C. Shuler
Directed by Matthew T. Messina
Stage Management by Jean E. Compton
Scenic Design by Joy Ahn
Lighting Design by Daniel Friedman
Sound Design by Hannah Foerschler
Assistant Directed by Michael Conroy
Dramaturgy by Nina Ryan
Ms. Divine’s Wardrobe by Raymond Cleveland
Graphic Design by Isabelle Souri
Carpentry by Bryce Fields
Cast featuring Raymond K. Cleveland (Gaia Divine), Noah Laufer (Benji), and Sofia Tew (Tallulah)
January 18 – January 26, 2019
Greenhouse Theater Center
2257 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, Il 60614