‘The $18-Billion Prize’ presents problematic bias against environmentalism in weak production

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There are two sides to every story, yet “The $18-Billion Prize” is intent on telling only one.

The play, written by Phelim McAleer and Jonathan Leaf, depicts the court case of Donziger v. Chevron Corp., in which Chevron was accused of polluting Ecuador’s rainforest and, after losing the case, ultimately had to pay more than $18 billion under order of the Ecuadorian court.

“The $18-Billion Prize,” directed by Richard Kuhlman and playing at the Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco, is a piece of verbatim theater, which means the script is almost entirely made up of trial and deposition transcripts. Thus, all of the courtroom action happening onstage consists of the real words spoken by the real people whom the actors are portraying. Despite the unbiased perspective you’d expect to see onstage given the real words that are being used, there is a clear message being presented: one against the environmentalist movement.

The play turns the court case into a theater drama, in which lawyer Steven R. Donziger (David Boyll) is the villain. The real Donziger represented the environmentalists’ side of the case, going up against Chevron. He gained a significant amount of media attention throughout this trial, in part because of multiple counts of fraud committed on his part to help his case.

Donziger, as a character, is explicitly the bad guy, putting on a front of altruistic motives aimed at helping the environment. Not only that, but the play presents Donziger as being representative of the environmentalist movement as a whole, giving off the message that it is not just the lawyer who is corrupt but the entire movement. The play is promoted as showing the “dark side of the environmentalist movement,” but it is really just the dark actions of one man that are being depicted and then extrapolated.

But the problematic perspective on environmentalism is not the only problem. “The $18-Billion Prize” is degrading to women as well. This story does not include many female characters, and none of its female characters could be considered leads. There is Donziger’s wife and a few women who are mentioned in trial, including a nameless secretary to Albert Guerra (Peter Allas) and the more well-known figures of Mia Farrow and Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler. All of these characters are portrayed by just one actress, Emily M. Keyishian. The secretary is presented as nothing more than a ditzy girl who walks around in short skirt, vigorously chewing her gum and filing her nails. The character of Mia Farrow makes but a few appearances. At one point, the male cast members sing a song about Styler with the lyrics, “She’s an idiot, she’s a freaking idiot,” repeated. Not only do these blatant degradations do nothing to forward the plot, they distract from the actual plot and add unnecessary time to an already dragging production.  

Easily the most effective element of the production is the set design. With tree stumps scattered around the stage and plants around the border, the atmosphere of a rainforest is clearly evoked. In a clever move on set designer Pete Hickok’s part, it is the rainforest that acts as the courtroom. Despite this strong setup, the stage blocking does not do the set design justice. While it can be difficult to give a clear view for all audience members in a small theater, this production completely ignores the back of the stage, which is one of the best ways to utilize a confining stage space.

Overall, Donziger v. Chevron Corp. is a fascinating case with a lot of inherent drama. It has the potential to make a compelling courtroom drama production, but this play does not achieve that. Instead of presenting an interesting look into a man who went to extreme and immoral levels under the guise of a major movement, it is the environmentalist movement itself that gets put on the stand. “The $18-Billion Prize” does nothing more than present a biased perspective of a movement that did nothing to provoke nor deserve it.

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the song with the lyrics “she’s an idiot” refers to Mia Farrow. In fact, the lyrics are sung in reference to Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler.