Sam Chanse’s brilliant new play “The Opportunities of Extinction” begins with a fable: the story of a lone giant Shasta Ground Sloth fallen into a canyon with no exits. “When your instinct says survive, the data says you won’t,” says Georgia (Aria Szalai-Raymond), a member of the Youth Conservation Corps surveying the landscape for the effects of climate change in Joshua Tree National Park. Coyotes howl in the distance—two or three of them making the noise of a crowd. “They want the world to see them,” she says. But we don’t. And no Joshua trees are visible on the set that serves as the campground in which Mel (Echaka Agba) and Arjun (Richard Costes) are taking a break from the real and virtual worlds, at least in theory.
All three struggle to find the right distance from the worlds they inhabit. Arjun, an ethnic-studies professor placed on academic leave for a controversial tweet, can barely put down his phone, which still gets a signal in the park (which is only twenty minutes from a supermarket). Mel, formerly a hotshot blogger, shuns the internet to focus on a book but finds it difficult to share her thoughts and feelings with her partner. Georgia sublimates a burgeoning maternal instinct into obsessive conservation of Joshua trees, which are in fact not trees but a species of yucca that take forty years to mature. Saplings haven’t been able to survive the years of drought, putting the whole population at risk for extinction.
The extinct Shasta Ground Sloth that co-evolved with the Joshua tree was once its only means of seed dispersal, as it ate the fruit and shit the seeds out whole, explains Georgia. The shrinking footprint of Joshua trees on the planet are thus the “fossil of a relationship that don’t exist no more.” “Never stake the survival of your species on a sloth” is the joke and the moral of the play that nevertheless calls itself “Opportunities of” and not “Opportunities for” extinction. Every moment in Broken Nose Theatre’s production, directed by Jen Poulin, captures the absurd melancholy of life in the sixth mass extinction. Three humans in a desert wandering in and out of view, temporary and flawed, on the brink of demise, briefly connect. How beautiful. (Irene Hsiao)
Broken Nose Theatre at The Den Theatre, 1331 North Milwaukee, brokennosetheatre.com, pay-what-you-can. Through June 30.