Review: “This Clement World”

by Joe Kellen

First and foremost, I want to point out that Cynthia Hopkins has a presence that fills a room quickly.

Adorned in a plaid shirt with gray jeans, the performer was comfortable and energized on stage, relying on her musicianship and characters to carry her through “This Clement World.” Her simple-yet-powerful-delivery paired with a visual display that peppered the audience with image after image provided a stimulating and cathartic evening at the Walker Art Center; although it took me a while to hop on the Arctic vessel Hopkins invited us to board.

The massive, multimedia laden musical brought its viewers into the world of Cape Farewell, a program that invites artists and scientists to investigate and create work concerning climate change (check out Joe Kleinschmidt’s article for further context.) Hopkins uses this as the main narrative device for “This Clement World,” using her real life experiences with the voyage in documentary form. She embodies the cast of characters with monologues, extended video sequences, and show-stopping folk anthems that she penned for a full band and a thunder resonant choir. These elements and their sheer size came in handy in depicting the theme of climate change awareness that Hopkins brought home time and time again throughout her performance.

Like most of the fare the Walker endorsed through their recently concluded “Out There” series, the show embraced an idiosyncratic presentation style. The narrators Hopkins worked with ranged from a dimensionally travelling alien in the form of an “amiable dude” to the ghost of a Native American that only spoke through projected text on a screen or the crashing swell of tribal music. All of these figures came together under multiple rectangular screens that displayed images to accompany each scene and occasionally interacted with the live spectacle. At times overwhelming, but always connected to the progression of the narrative, the busy life of “This Clement World” successfully combined media with live performance, suggesting that the way each piece of the stage image fit together is similar to how each component of the natural world does the same.

It’s a good thing that it did, because the natural world and the danger it’s in is the subject that gets driven home with a vengeance by Hopkins’ throaty, room-filling belt. Each song encapsulated the fading clemency of the environment with layers upon layers of strings, percussion, and voice. While the talent and presence of the performers is impossible to deny, the didactic nature of the message is not. Hopkins’ urgency was palpable throughout the entire performance and it’s obvious that she cares deeply about the message of change she imposed on her audience. It's an undoubtedly relevant and important topic, but the piece occasionally took on a redundant feel in its narrow scope. I found myself wanting something a little less in-your-face as we approached the halfway mark, and this is when Hopkins grabbed my hesitant hand and pulled me on to that boat.

About halfway through the musical, Hopkins started to more deeply develop her character monologues in a daring mixture of storytelling and physicality, using these people to illustrate her experiences with visceral, well-paced acting. The beauty in her illustration was that she managed to get the same points across without shoving an idea down the throat of an audience, and this subtlety lent a great balance to “This Clement World.”  Don’t get me wrong—the bigger songs and more blunt moments in the piece shine, but they lacked the tact that made the nuanced bits glow. And Hopkins makes an argument for the place of unapologetic agenda-pushing: towards the end of the show, she talks about her initial ideas as a writer and how she wanted to take a more ambiguous approach to the subject through metaphor. After some thinking, though, she realized that in a situation as dire as this one, “metaphors don’t work.”

Hopkins doesn’t want to beat around the bush; she calls for urgency and encourages her viewers to do something about the issue. This was reflected in the booth that sat outside the theater after the show and the crowd of people signing up to work with the environmental awareness group. “This Clement World” wasn’t just a piece of theatre; it was the attempt of an artist trying to fight for something bigger than herself. Maybe this is why Hopkins was so fun to watch: her level of passion resulted in the outpour of something that genuinely felt important. She made us listen with her earnest command rather than militancy and because of this we all made the voyage with her, ears open.