Single Carrot Theatre opens season with provocative 'Natural Selection'

Picture it: The time is somewhere in the future. People are addicted to blogging; posting pictures of every little event that occurs in their day-to-day lives, no matter how insignificant; communicating by email more than actual, mouth-moving conversation. Kids plug into virtual classrooms and can even take part in school plays without ever having to leave the comforting nest at home. Lots of folks confuse and accept simulation for reality.

Wait a minute. This can’t be the future. Isn't this, like, now?

Eric Coble’s “Natural Selection,” an often sharp-edged play that provides Single Carrot Theatre with an effective season-opener, mixes the world of today with an unnerving idea of a much-closer-than-you-think tomorrow. It’s a place where urban populations are denser and more isolated than ever, the countryside is truly wild, and “climate change” is an understatement.

The prolific Coble borrows an assortment of durable sitcom devices to construct a deft, if somewhat over-padded, satire. It revolves around operators of a Florida theme park called Culture Fiesta, where visitors can get a supposedly authentic taste of diverse peoples and their customs. (I picture a tacky fusion of EPCOT and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.)

There’s trouble in the Native American pavilion. One of the workers has died, and

finding another purebred won’t be easy, since “indigenous Native Americans are hard to find outside of casinos.” A harrowing trip into the wild to “bag” a replacement provides the plot-spinner.

All of this may sound too silly, but so many issues are raised, so many pathetic traits of contemporary human behavior neatly skewered, that the play ends up delivering a thoughtful little wallop.

And the way Coble gradually inserts Native American philosophy into the proceedings is quite inspired, helping to transform the entire story into something all the more intriguing, something at once evocative and provocative. (Speaking of intriguing, Coble’s own background is an eye-opener: Born in Scotland, brought up on Navajo and Ute reservations in Colorado and New Mexico. That's even cooler than Barbra Streisand’s fictional, early-career Playbill bio that had her “born in Madagascar, reared in Rangoon.”)

“Natural Selection,” briskly directed by Nathan Fulton (he also did the set and lighting design), fits the Single Carrot troupe snugly.

Christopher Rutherford gives a sympathetic performance as Henry, the jittery Culture Fiesta employee who discovers his inner hunter, not to mention his inner husband and father. The actor reveals a knack for subtle comic nuances and for limning the character's emotional growth. (Rutherford's sound design for the production — the Single Carrot crowd is perpetually multi-tasking — adds effective dollops of atmosphere.)

As Zhao Martinez, the crudely captured, would-be savior of the theme park, Aldo Pantoja offers slyly amusing work; it's fun to watch him move from dazed to defiant. Lyndsay Webb handles various roles, including the wonderfully named Yolanda Pastiche, Henry’s supervisor, in vibrant, persuasive style. Elliott Rauh also nimbly plays more than one part. He really chews up the — well, there isn’t much scenery, but he tears up the place as the wacky, foul-mouthed hired gun, Ernie. Jessica Garrett does a vivid turn as Henry’s Web-crazed wife, Suzie.

“Natural Selection” entertains nicely as it issues its stern little warning to the teeming, texting masses hurling through an increasingly dehumanizing cyber universe. But there’s more. The play even manages to give you a whole new way of looking at Sloppy Joes (you have to be there).

Performances continue through Oct. 31.


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