When you think of Easter Island, you probably think of those giant stone
heads the island is famous for - and think what a marvel they are.
But you probably don't think of them as an "environmental disaster."
And that, according to The Last Tree of Rapa Nui, is where we're wrong.
The new musical for young audiences (getting its stage premiere this weekend at Manitoba Theatre for Young People, after touring around the province last fall) offers up an intriguing idea, inspired by Jared Diamond's book Collapse. Diamond suggests the giant stone heads of Rapa Nui (the proper name for Easter Island - and that was the first thing I learned courtesy of this show) might actually have lead to environmental collapse. And that's the story that plays out here... in musical form.
A four-person cast plays the island chief (Jennifer Lyon), her daughter (Nadine Villasin), the island stonecutter, responsible for making the heads (Ryan Black), and his son (Peter Fernandes).
As the musical begins, Rapa Nui is an island paradise - people fish, grow yams, and make the stone heads to honour their ancestors. But before long, someone wants a bigger stone head... and then someone else wants a stone head bigger than that... and that's where things go very, very bad for the islanders. Because to move these stone heads, they essentially clear-cut the island, and transport the enormous stones by rolling them over felled trees. And next thing you know - environmental and societal collapse.
These are heavy themes for a kids show, delivered by writer Vern Thiessen, a former Winnipeger and Governor General's Award-winner who usually takes on serious subject matter (local audiences might remember his Lenin's Embalmers or Einstein's Gift - which were excellent plays, but not particularly uplifting stories).
Ron Jenkins' clear direction commits to the gradually darkening tone of the show, though its momentum flags a bit in that we can see fairly early on where things are going. While it's laudable that the message isn't sugar-coated, I wouldn't accuse Last Tree of Rapa Nui of being too subtle.
But it is still a musical, which somewhat lifts the heaviness. Although Winnipegger Olaf Pyttlik's music certainly has its dark moments too, he also makes great use of tribal rhythms and drumming, giving the show some much-needed energy. (You can get a taste of the show's music here).
But in the end, the story told here is unflinching in saying people are responsible for their own fates... and of course, there are plenty of clear parallels to our own society, and how consumerism links to environmental issues. This puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of young audiences - which is not unreasonable, given what our own "bigger is better" approach is doing to the world these kids will grow up in. (But given the weighty themes of the show, I'd think it's best for slightly older kids - say mid-elementary school up to junior high.)
The Last Tree of Rapa Nui won't be the "feel good" play of MTYP's season... but it might be one of the most important.