The Bay Area is no stranger to cataclysmic events, from earthquakes to wildfires — and now a pandemic. And certainly the last year and a half has often felt pretty apocalyptic.
So audiences might know a little of what characters in Marisela Treviño Orta's "Somewhere" are feeling as they grapple with the apocalypse. The play explores life in an unfolding climate-related catastrophe brought about by the sudden disappearance of most of the planet's insects.
The Pear Theatre is staging "Somewhere" in repertory with William Shakespeare's "The Tempest," which tells of shipwreck survivors on an island in the aftermath of a massive storm conjured by a sorcerer with a score to settle.
The shows, presented in person Oct. 1-24, are a co-production with The Perspective Theatre Company (formerly the Arabian Shakespeare Festival). "Somewhere" is making its West Coast premiere in this production. "The Tempest" will also be available as a livestreamed performance.
The two plays are the first of a series of "Pear pairings" that will be staged throughout the company's 20th anniversary season, with two shows presented in repertory, featuring one show that's new to the company and revisiting a show from one of the company's past seasons.
The Pear staged "The Tempest" in 2013 in a well-received production that featured some nontraditional casting, such as changing the gender of the sorcerer Prospero to a woman, who was portrayed by then-artistic director Diane Tasca.
"The purpose of all these Pear pairings is to say, 'let's take some of the work that The Pear has done really effectively in the past and let's give them a revitalization, let's imagine them differently and also put them in the context of something that will help give them new perspective,'" said Sinjin Jones, artistic director at The Pear.
The climate events in both plays are ultimately caused by humans, though Prospero has a lot more individual control over the weather than we mere mortals do nowadays.
But the shows also delve into ideas of resilience and coping in the face of catastrophe in ways that might be surprisingly hopeful for a pair of plays about disaster.
Orta said she found inspiration for "Somewhere" from an article that posited what would happen if most of Earth's insects disappeared — and far from a blissful existence free of flies and mosquitoes that one might imagine, such an event would bring true disaster.
Especially timely as it may seem now, Orta wrote "Somewhere" in 2019, and some of its influences go much farther back than our current crises — to the 1980s and early '90s, when nuclear war seemed the likeliest apocalypse.
"I grew up at the very tail end of the Cold War in the '80s. And so I saw movies like 'Red Dawn' where suddenly you had to take for the hills because a war was happening," she said, recalling how such movies led her as a child to imagine what it would be like to have to pack up and leave in a hurry while facing certain disaster.
Orta also cites the darkly comic films of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, particularly his post-apocalyptic 1991 comedy "Delicatessen," as influential.
"What I love about that film is that it's apocalyptic but it's not 'Mad Max.' On a scale of one to 10 it's more like, three. ... Things are just starting to fall apart and people are trying to hold on to a sense of normality, or trying to hang on to the way things were, when clearly, it's very hard to do that when the world is rapidly deteriorating," she said.
Additionally Orta, a Texas native who now lives in Austin, cited more than a decade of living in the Bay Area as a strong influence, noting that she still keeps an earthquake kit for emergencies.
Orta set the apocalypse in "Somewhere" at about a three, in the story of sister and brother duo Cassandra and Alexander, who, as they are tracking the migration of the world's last monarch butterflies, cross paths with a small group of people trying to survive on a truffle farm — truffles and mushrooms being some of the few crops that don't require pollinators. But even so, they have swapped one problem for another, Orta points out, as mushrooms are a negative-calorie food, with enough nutrients suitable for supplementing a diet, but not sustainable as a staple food.
In her research on truffles, she was also struck by the unusual way that truffles grow, relying on a symbiotic relationship with nearby trees. But the trees can be vulnerable to a deadly fungus.
"That becomes like a metaphor for striking a balance with our own environment as humans, as part of it. How do we not be parasitic, how do we strike a mutualistic relationship with all our resources?"
"Somewhere" made its debut in February 2020 at Philadelphia's Temple University and The Pear had originally scheduled the show for last season, in December of 2020, but the pandemic upended last year's schedule.
Orta wrote "Somewhere" during a residency at Temple, where the brief was to write a play on any topic she chose for an ensemble, in which roles would be roughly of equal size, with no main and supporting characters.
The fact that "Somewhere" is an ensemble piece made particular sense for a play about a topic like the apocalypse that would have a universal impact, but that people would experience differently.
"We see the stress or anxiety, or in some cases, the bargaining that happens, or even the weird choices that people make — how different people will react. It's not just one person's story because, in fact, this is all of our story — the idea that it's going to impact all of us, none of us can escape," Orta said.
With "The Tempest," The Pear isn't staging a revival, but a revitalization, artistic director Jones said, with a new adaptation.
"We're taking a look at it in the context of interesting things that (director Melinda Marks) is doing with the gender of the characters, with the perception of the characters," he said.
Jones notes that this adaptation offers a critical look at Prospero's abuse and enslavement of the character Caliban.
Presenting the two plays in repertory, Jones said, "was really a collaboration and conversation between how can we reimagine 'The Tempest' in the context of 'Somewhere.'"
Jones also points to one perhaps unexpected connection between a 500-year-old play about a sorcerer and a new play firmly based in very real science and facts.
"In the same way that Shakespeare, especially in the second part of his career, used folktales and myths and coincidence to tell stories of loss and reconciliation, I think Marisela Orta is using a lot of mystical elements, and certainly mythical characters in evoking new ideas."
"Somewhere" and "The Tempest" are running in repertory Oct. 1-24 at The Pear Theatre, 1110 Avenida St., Mountain View. For more information, visit thepear.org.