Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

Reviews

The 18 Billion Prize, The dark side of the environmental movement, by Phelim McAleer and Jonathan Leaf, directed by Richard Kuhlman

I remember the protests in the 1990s, the pickets in front of Chevron on Market St. in San Francisco before they moved to San Ramon.  Playwrights McAlear and Leaf write what is called “verbatim” plays in that the scripts are taken from court disposition transcripts.   Their previous collaboration dealt with the Ferguson case wherein a black man was shot and killed by a policeman in the town of Ferguson, Missouri for the crime of selling loose cigarettes.   “The $18 Billion Prize,” based on the court case of  Donziger v. Chevron, concerns the Ecuadorian rainforest trial where the plaintiffs sued Chevron oil company for ruining the rivers polluted by the giant Chevron Oil Companies. The play is considered a shocking and at times farcical tale of how an environmental lawsuit turned into the world’s biggest fraud in Chevron’s favor.  The rain forest natives had hired New York attorney, activist Steven Donziger, who fought for justice against one of the world’s biggest oil companies.  The courts awarded the prize, but the- ah-hem “fat lady”-  has yet to sing, in other words-ongoing.  According to publicity notes, “Stories of sex-obsessed Hollywood celebrities let loose in the jungle and the private diaries of the lead attorney submitted into evidence are just some of the plot twists in the ‘wild and crazy’ tale.”  I like plays that leave me wanting more, or make me want to know more, actually research or read up on. Should you be like me, this is such a play.

The play opens on a simple set (Pete Hickok) depicting the Ecuadorian rainforest: exotic tropical plants enclosed in a large Lucite cube, upended logs of various heights.  A couple of poncho-garbed natives sit face to face (actors play double rôles as activists and attorneys).   The strong cast (Sally Dana) is headed by David Boyle as Steven Donziger, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, the Ecuadorian natives; Joe Higgins as Judge Lewis Kaplan, and Patrick Edwards as Judge Nicolas Zambrano. Much credit is to be awarded to the playwrights McAleer and Leaf, and director Richard Kuhlman who take us through the arguments in a script culled from 220,000 pages of court transcripts.  Peter Allas plays pro-Chevron Albert Guerra, a corrupt Ecuadorian ex-judge.  The back-and-forth dialogue is heavy on court-speak, which is to be expected, but not so that one cannot follow what’s going on.  Only strong acting and a great script could pull this off.  This is a male-heavy play relieved by the casting of multi-talented Emily M. Keyshian as Laura Miller, Donziger’s wife, and other rôles.  Steve Budd has a small rôle as New York  attorney Jeffrey Isaac Shinder specializing in anti-trust, litigation, and trade regulation.  As Shinder, Budd’s strong stage presence allows him to  deliver a short but effective  speech in favor of the plaintiff.  A dedicated supporting cast adds to the play’s strength: Derek Fischer as James Steiger, llo Orleans as Randy Mastro, and Joe Walters as David Loyd Russell.

The $18 Billion Dollar Prize plays today at 3PM, Thursday , May 31, 8PM through Sunday, June 3, 3PM.  75 minutes. No intermission.  Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason Street, 6t floor. Go to: www.phoenixtheatresf.org for tickets and information.

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