Voices of the bayou come to life during the world premiere of “SPILL,” a multimedia play written and directed by New York playwright Leigh Fondakowski in collaboration with visual artist Reeva Wortel. The play opened on March 12 and performances will continue on through March 30 at the Reilly Theatre on LSU campus.
Fondakowski has spent the last 15 years in creating documentary theatre, including serving as head writer for “The Laramie Project,” a play about the 1998 gay-bashing death of Matthew Shepard. “SPILL” is her latest project, based on the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig, which spilled oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days and became known as the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Within months after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Fondakowski traveled to the gulf region of Louisiana where she interviewed residents about the oil spill.
Fondakowski compiled 200 hours of interviews to use as inspiration for “SPILL,” and narrowed them down to make a concise piece of the incident and the two years that followed. During the interviewing process, Wortel accompanied Fondakowski and painted portraits of each interviewee. These portraits are currently exhibited in the Reilly Theatre lobby during the run of “SPILL” as a way for the story to continue on once the lights go down.
The real-life hardships of those affected directly by Deepwater Horizon were examined through Fondakowski’s interviews, along with photographs, court documents and archived news articles. The words of these accounts were incorporated into the script, and proved that the story was far from finished after the well was capped. Over 30 different interviewees were chosen for “SPILL,” played by an ensemble cast including: Kelli Simpkins, James Carpenter, Jenny Ballard, Silas Cooper, Jon Krupp, Amar Atkins, Anthony McMurray, Tim Moriarty, Joe Morris, Colton Neidhardt and Ashley Adams.
The play opens with a character known as the Writer (Simpkins) seeking people to interview about Deepwater Horizon. The Writer character is a representation of the artists who were involved in the development of “SPILL,” including Fondakowski, Wortel, Simpkins and scenic designer Sarah Lambert. The first half of the play focuses on the Writer collecting interviews of the events leading up to explosion on the rig, with the second act focusing on the response of the oil spill, and how it affected coastal life while examining the close ties between oil and Louisiana.
Fondakowski wove a touching script, but what truly brings “SPILL” to life is the talent onstage. Swine Palace’s production captured the sorrow and resilient nature circling around those affected by Deepwater Horizon. Each actor performed a moving portrayal of Louisiana citizens, including fishermen, political figures, cleanup workers, scientists and oil industry workers. The families of those lost in the explosion held the strongest voice throughout the duration of the play, evoking intense sympathy for the 11 men whose lives were cut short.
Each actor played more than one character, and the cast of “SPILL” did not miss a beat by quickly altering their voices, changing costumes and altering their mannerisms to aid in portraying a different role. The vocal qualities of Simpkins, Atkins and Moriarty were most impressive as they altered their voices for distinct characters, including authentic-sounding South Louisiana residents, President Barack Obama and former CEO of British Petroleum Tony Hayward. Physicality was a necessity for the actors who held multiple roles, and Ballard was a special delight while watching her change from the young wife of explosion victim Jason Anderson, to the elderly oilrig worker Lillian Miller.
The highlights of the play however were the performances of James Carpenter, Jon Krupp and Silas Cooper, whose characters touch the audience with their deeply poignant stories. One moment they could be speaking about the loss of their son, the disappearing Louisiana wetlands, or how an oil-covered pelican needs to be cleaned. These monologues are truly touching, even heartbreaking, as the actors share the experiences and emotions of those who lived it.