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Theater review: Spill tries to clean up the mess of the 2010 BP oil disaster

Written by
Jenna Scherer

It's been nearly seven years since the BP offshore rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 men and setting off an environmental disaster of Biblical proportions. And with unfettered corporate chiefs looking to rule Trump's White House, there's never been a more important time to revisit the incident.

Presented through Ensemble Studio Theatre's partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Spill is a timely piece of documentary theater written and directed by Leigh Fondakowski. And though the Deepwater blowout has recently been in the popular consciousness thanks to Peter Berg's 2016 blockbuster of the same name, Fondakowski's deeply granular take on the event is vital in its own right.

Fondakowski is best known as the head writer of Tectonic Theater Project's seminal The Laramie Project, which examined the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. Spill takes a similar interview-based approach, combining text culled from interviews and depositions with artful reenactments. An ensemble cast takes on multiple roles from the days leading up to the blowout to the aftermath, careful to weigh both the human and environmental cost.

An interviewer (Kelli Simpkins) takes us into the lives of people related to Deepwater on every level, from the widow of a Texan tool pusher to the CEO of BP and an outspoken Louisiana cleanup worker. Along the way, Fondakowski paints a detailed, damning portrait of a catastrophe enabled by unchecked corporate greed.

Considering how much information it must deliver, Spill moves at a compelling pace, buoyed by versatile actors and an unfussy design. The moments that connect the hardest are the personal stories, like when a young rig worker (Ronald Alexander Peet) describes the horror of swimming through flaming oil or a bereaved father (Vince Gatton) recalls the loss of his son.

These anecdotes, paired with macro-level musings on the romance of the oil industry and the ecological toll the spill took, combine to create a prismatic view of an all-too-real, man-made horror story. Spill does what art does best in these politically fraught times: putting a human face on a complex issue, making it impossible to look away.

Ensemble Studio Theatre (Off Broadway). Written and directed by Leigh Fondakowski. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission. Through Apr 2. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

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