In 2011, Billy Marcheski and his partner Alison Denham went on a trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the 2,600 kilometre area in the Ukraine surrounding the site of one of the worst nuclear reactor accidents in history. Slowpoke tells of that trip.
The duo share their trip through slides, stories and dance. We also get rudimentary language lessons and even a few get shots of vodka. The audience is in two single rows and director James Fagan Tait works with the two alternating talking about the slides, becoming the slides and dancing.
They tell us that the radioactive dust has settled and contaminated everything. 91,200 were eventually evacuated from the area and it will not be safe for another 20,000 years. We learn that all of the vegetation in the area is radioactive and because of the lack of people, animals have returned to the area and eat the now contaminated vegetation.
We also find out that the clean-up crews were given vodka and told it would protect them from the radiation and after the reactor was sealed in a sarcophagus, scientists descended into the area. In 2011 the Ukraine government opened up the area for tourists.
The story of this horrific accident and the corporate and government response is very upsetting and important. The slides that Marcheski and Denham share of their trip on a single screen are very haunting: activity centers, a fair ground, shopping areas and deserted homes.
They were told not touch the vegetation or any surface, to walk only on cement to avoid getting the radioactive dust on their clothes. They demonstrate this is in an athletic dance, a version of “don’t step on a crack”, that comes to a standstill when they meet another tourist group wearing protective booties; they are not.
Both Allison and Billy are fine dancers and delightful guides, but for a few unnerving moments, such as when they pass in front of each audience member with a Geiger counter, the piece presents a lot of facts, but fails to provide enough emotional content. Often they just act out sitting in the van and looking around at the desolation with expressions of wonder and horror; there is little depth or complexity.
Late in the show they talk of leaving their likely contaminated footwear in a plastic bag, but moments later discover the bag and shoes are gone, with Marchenski somberly quipping that he “hope they wear thick socks”.
Recounting the incident and the response speaks to a deeper story. Why did he leave the shoes knowing they would likely be stolen? Was he lost in thought and did it accidentally, or was he acting out in hopelessness? What were the bigger conflicts going on inside during this odd trip to a tragic place?
Slowpoke plays out like a travelogue of an incredible journey, but while it may be a cool trip it also a little cold; more of the why and who would make it a far more compelling story.
By Billy Marchenski and Alison Denham. Directed by James Fagan Tait. A Radix Theatre production. On stage at the Russian Hall through June, 11, 2013. Visit http://www.radixtheatre.org for tickets and information.