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theatre review

Award-winning science writer Alanna Mitchell has taken her message about climate change to the Toronto stage.Chloë Ellingson

There's a funny anecdote that occurs late into Alanna Mitchell's Sea Sick, the solo show opening the Theatre Centre's handsome new Queen West home in Toronto. It finds Mitchell in a submersible 3,000 feet under the sea, crammed into a compartment no wider than a bathtub, and suddenly having a desperate need to pee.

Mitchell's description of her awkward plight, complete with a sly reference to the movie Gravity – her partner in the submersible is a can-do engineer who "looks like George Clooney" – is one of the few moments of levity in this sobering account of how our carbon addiction is killing the sea.

Mitchell isn't an actor, but a former Globe and Mail reporter and author of the prize-winning 2009 book Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, from which this, her first theatrical effort, is derived. The 70-minute monologue recounts her experiences as a peripatetic science journalist seeking to document the effects of global warming on the Earth's oceans. It's a story that ranges from the Galapagos Islands to the Florida Keys, involves top marine biologists and includes first-hand reports of the devastation being wrought by carbonic acid on sea life.

In her story, Mitchell plays the unlikely sea sleuth, a kid from the Saskatchewan prairies with a dislike of boats and a fear of water. But she also has a scientist father (retired University of Regina professor George Mitchell) and a childhood idol in Charles Darwin, who serves as her model for revealing inconvenient truths.

Speaking of which, Sea Sick obviously has another model in the celebrated Al Gore climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Like that film, Mitchell's show paints us an overwhelmingly bleak picture of head-long catastrophe, then offers some thin rays of hope. However, that is not to in any way diminish the urgent message Mitchell is delivering here. And she delivers it with quiet conviction. As a performer, she's soft-spoken but engaging. And as a writer she's both cheerfully self-deprecating and unabashedly colourful – at one point she describes coral spawning in the Caribbean with the erotic fervour of a Harlequin romance.

Sea Sick was originally meant to be part of the Cape Farewell Foundation's Carbon 14: Climate is Culture Festival, of which The Theatre Centre was a co-presenter – hence the show's rather unusual role as the centre's inaugural production in its new venue. A $6.2-million renovation of the former Carnegie Library on the southeast corner of Queen and Lisgar streets, the self-described "live arts hub and incubator" is a sleek, functional facility that's a clear improvement over the centre's previous murky digs. But we'll have to wait for a more theatrical offering to judge the qualities of its primary space, the Main Hall.

As staged there by Franco Boni, the centre's artistic director, with help from A Brimful of Asha's Ravi Jain, Sea Sick often feels more like a lecture than a performance. Mitchell, looking professorial with her owlish glasses and short grey hair, draws diagrams on a blackboard and conducts a simple experiment involving a piece of chalk and a pitcher of vinegar. The few embellishments include Rebecca Picherack's lighting design, which takes us down into the sea depths with Mitchell, and a soundtrack by Tim Lindsay that draws on the author's favourite musicians, Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

Then again, if you're making a convincing argument that, by burning fossil fuels, humans have set the Earth on course for its next mass extinction, theatrical flourishes are probably redundant.

Sea Sick runs until March 23.

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