Journey to the center
Earth Days: American Experience
9 p.m. Monday, April 19
Sometimes you have to look around and wonder what's wrong with us. Like, why do we need Earth Day? It should be self-evident that clean air and water, energy independence and food that's as pristine and chemical-free as possible ought to be our common, unanimous goal. And yet, somehow, it's not.
That's what kept running through my mind as I watched Earth Days, Robert Stone's informative and ultimately unsettling film, which provides an oral and visual history of the modern American environmental movement as seen through the eyes of nine of its movers and shakers.
Stone begins in the 1950s, when America began to treat materialism and unfettered growth as its birthright. Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring, which warned against overuse of pesticides, sounded the first alarm. (Not shockingly, the chemical industry labeled her a "hysterical woman.")
As smog, pollution and overcrowding began to threaten life and health in our cities, activists got together to create the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, inspiring 20 million Americans to demand a cleaner environment. Incredibly, some opposed the idea, noting that the date coincided with the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lenin. Yes, much like healthcare somehow equals Nazism today, back then clean air and water meant communism.
The federal government, however, noted the power of the movement. President Richard Nixon signed the Clear Air and Clean Water acts and created the Environmental Protection Agency, and environmentalism became a great cause. (The FBI also wiretapped the Earth Day offices, but hey, you can't have everything.)
But soon, the 1973 oil crisis hit and the environmental movement and business began to tangle. Instead of finding a balance between, say, clear-cutting forests and chopping down no trees, putting loggers out of work, both sides failed to compromise. Instead of heeding President Jimmy Carter's warning that "if we fail to act soon (on energy independence), we will face an economic, social and political crisis that will threaten our free institutions," President Ronald Reagan thumbed his nose at such pessimism and removed the Carter-era solar panels from the White House roof.
And so on. Those interviewed for the film, including former congressman and interior secretary Stewart Udall, author Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) and Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, reflect on what they accomplished with a sense of awe and what we've yet to achieve with disappointment.
Stone's film can be grim at times, but it's also a lovely retrospective of what America looked like from the 1950s through the 1980s. He mixes in colorful cars, men in gray-flannel suits and classic commercials that sounded environmental warnings. One ad from the '70s warned that "by 1980, you're probably going to need a gas mask and a flashlight to get to the office. There won't be any birds or bees or trees."
Tactics like that probably wouldn't work today. If two wars, $4-a-gallon gas, warnings about mercury-contaminated fish and continued dependence on Middle East oil don't scare us, nothing will.
— Marc D. Allan
Schoolhouse Rock Live!
Through April 18 at Margeson Theater
Lowndes Shakespeare Center
812 E. Rollins St.
In the latest kids' production from Orlando Shakes, teacher Tom (Mike Gill) is nervously facing his first school class. And if this were real life, the passage last week of reform legislation making it easier to fire underperforming teachers, Tom would be terrified. But this is fiction, so instead helpful characters Dori, Dina, Shulie, Joe and George appear to Tom like psychotropic remnants of the swinging 1970s to inspire him, through song, dance and bunchy corduroy pants, to inspire others.
Schoolhouse Rock Live!, based on the ABC children's television series dating back to the '70s, rehashes some of the show's old familiar tunes ("I'm Just a Bill" and "Conjunction Junction" were both crowd-pleasers for parents) and brings them to vivid kiddie-vamping life in a performance that, despite the good-time vibe, is so vivid it overwhelms to the point of claustrophobia.
Presented in the cushy Margeson Theater with floor-level rows for the kids, the production's attention-grabbing set design highlights what looks like a bargain-bin '70s wardrobe that does none of the cast members any favors. But it's the restrictive choreography that moves the action inward, rather than pushing the interactivity employed by the best in children's entertainment, from Disney to the Wiggles.
Anchored by a charismatic George (Regan McLellan), the Schoolhouse players pull off the familiar songs ably, even when audience fatigue — both kids and grownups grew antsy — sets in around 40 minutes into the hour-long performance. Director-choreographer Patrick Flick wisely saves a couple of showy numbers for the second half, including lightly spraying the crowd with water guns for "Interjections" and pulling out the glow sticks for the trippy "Interplanet Janet."
In today's FCAT-driven pressure-cooker of a classroom, it's hard to believe that Broadway camp and plain-text visual aids can compete with Mac labs and "differentiated accountability." Then again, were Tom's new teaching job suddenly dependent upon test scores, it sure wouldn't hurt to try.
— Justin Strout[email protected]