Play ‘SPILL’ explores rich La. cultural resilience in face of tragedy, destruction

Jim Carpenter has studied Robert Bea.

He’s watched the videos of testimony by the former consultant for British Petroleum at the company’s oil spill trial in New Orleans.

And now Carpenter, who is also an engineering professor at the University of California-Berkeley, is portraying Bea in the world premiere of Leigh Fondakowski’s play “SPILL,” which opens March 12 in the Reilly Theater on the LSU campus.

The play is being produced by Baton Rouge’s professional theater company Swine Palace in association with The Study Group, a New York-based production group dedicated to exploring the relationship of theater, performance and real-life events.

Technically, the April 2010 explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform resulted in an 87-day oil leak, not a spill. But the word “spill” spread and was repeated throughout the national and international media to describe one of the largest environmental disasters in American history.

When the oil well exploded, 11 people died. Those 11 are represented in this story, as well as the survivors and the people affected by the tragedy.

Bea was one of the people surrounding the incident. He’d been to New Orleans quite a few times and even developed a respiration problem after breathing in the post-Katrina mold.

“He has an interesting speech pattern because of that,” Carpenter says. “He takes a deep breath, then he talks. I knew I couldn’t do that in the play, because it would be hard to follow. But I stay true to his character. There’s a responsibility that comes with portraying a real character on stage. You have to be true to them and maintain a respect.”

Carpenter is a professional actor who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. He’s worked with Fondakowski before, most recently in her 2010 play, “The People’s Temple,” which examines the 1978 mass suicide by the Rev. Jim Jones’ congregation in its African settlement of Jonestown, Guyana.

“I played one of the survivors in that play,” Carpenter says. “I was able to meet him after the play, which was a great experience for me.”

He pauses, his gaze reaching for a memory beyond the arched wall of the Reilly Theatre’s lobby wall. The voices of fellow cast members are muffled behind the entrance doors as they prepare for rehearsal on a combination oil rig-courtroom set.

“You know,” Carpenter says, “the characters’ photographs were hung on stage at the end of ‘The People’s Temple.’ You not only saw their stories on stage, but you saw their pictures. You saw that they were real people, and by the end of the play, you knew them. That was powerful.”

Which is Fondakowski’s intention for “SPILL.”

Those unfamiliar with Fondakowski’s name surely will recognize the title of at least one of her works, “The Laramie Project,” which examined the violent 1998 death of Matthew Shepard, a 22-year-old gay man in Laramie, Wy.

Fondakowski was the head writer for the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project on that piece.

She and others in the theater company interviewed people on all sides surrounding Shepard’s death.

She’s done the same with “SPILL.”

In south Louisiana and other Gulf Coast communities, she conducted 99 interviews with fishermen, political figures, cleanup workers, scientists, oil industry workers and the families of those lost in the explosion. She also collected photographs and court documents for the project.

Fondakowski is collaborating with artist Reeva Wortel, who not only helped with the interviews but painted portraits of the play’s characters, who were whittled from 99 to 30.

The portraits will hang in the Reilly’s lobby during the play’s run, producing the same effect as the photos used in “The People’s Temple.” Once audience members are introduced to the characters during the play, they will come to know the real people in the portraits.

The result of the overall project is an exploration of the rich culture of Louisiana and the resilient nature of its inhabitants in the face of natural destruction and tragedy.

Kelli Simpkins learned this while working with Fondakowski and Wortel. She plays several characters — both male and female — in “SPILL,” most notably cleanup worker Jorey Danos. She’s based in Evansville, Ind., and has worked in all of Fondakowski’s plays.

She even helped with some of the “SPILL” interviews.

“I came to know these people, and I wasn’t sure how Jorey would feel about having a woman play his part,” Simpkins says. “We staged a reading at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts last year, and Jorey and his wife were there. At the end of the play, he stood up and shouted, ‘Kel-li Kel-li, Kel-li.’ I felt like a rock star.”

Danos has told Simpkins that he will be attending the premiere.

“He’s excited,” Simpkins says. “For me, it’s different playing a real character, in this case one who is a real person.”

These real people simply were living normal, daily lives before the Deepwater Horizon explosion. They were going to work and taking care of their families. None of them expected to be immortalized in a theatrical production.

“And there’s a certain love and respect I have to put in place in portraying these people,” Simpkins says.

“It’s a big responsibility,” Carpenter says. “I’ve come to know Bob Bea through portraying him on stage. He’s real, and I want to be true to his character, to all the characters I play.”

CAST: Jim Carpenter, Bob Bea /Randy Ezell /Wayne Keller; Jon Krupp,Bill Anderson/ Kerry St. Pe/Steve Bartoni/Questioner/Mark Hafle/Steve Bertoni; Tim Moriarty, Mike Williams/Shane Roshto/ Dave Young/ Steve Curtis/Pat O’Brien/ Bill Platt/Tony Hayward/ Ryan Lambert; Silas Cooper, Jimmy Delery/Jimmy Harrell/Keith Jones/Billy Nungesser/Captain Nyugen; Anthony McMurray, Jason Anderson; Amar Atkins, Byron Encalade/Christopher Pleasant/Marina Owner/Buddy Trahan; Ashley Adams, Lisa Jackson/ Merlene Cornin/Andrea Fleytas/ Byron’s cousin/Gary Batholemy; Jenny Ballard, Shelley Anderson /Mary Landry/Michel Varisco/ Lillian Miller; Kelli Simpkins, The Writer/Natalie Roshto/Nelda/Arlene Weise/Jorey Danos/Chad Murray; Ensemle: Adam Weise, Colt Neidhardt, Gordon Jones, ensemble; Joe Morris, Dewey Rivette, ensemble; Ensemble: Tony Hayward, Daun Winslow, Don Vidrine, Wyman Wheeler, Bob Kaluza, David Sims.