The Science Plays
nytheatre.com review by Anthony Pennino
May 6, 2009
Science—and the technological innovations it spawns—is one of the pillars of humanity's search for knowledge, creativity, and understanding of itself. Yet, it is quite remarkable how infrequently science is the subject of theatrical works. How we understand the universe and manipulate that universe with invention has always struck me as particularly fertile ground for dramatic investigation. Plays such as Bertolt Brecht's Galileo and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia have always struck me as particularly potent.
I applaud The Milk Can Theatre Company's decision to add to the canon with a series of 10-minute one-acts entitled The Science Plays currently running rep with the aforementioned Brecht piece at Urban Stages. The evening contains six works that move chronologically from the classical era to the distant future. As with many one-act festivals, the evening is a mixed bag with the strengths far outweighing the weaknesses.
The first play up is The Sense of Genius by Cheryl Davis. This play focuses on Archimedes (Craig Klein) and his servant Ismene (Amy Windle) as they flee an approaching invading Roman Army. There is a certain borscht-belt humor to the interplay between these two characters, which is mildly diverting. However, Archimedes comes across as a goofy curmudgeon rather than an ill-tempered genius, so the ending lacks the extremely high stakes and dark comedic power I think the playwright intends.
Gertrude and & Alyce Will Serve Ye Soone by Bethany Larsen is the second offering of the evening. It is supposed to represent the Middle Ages, but since it is set in Medieval Times, it does not really feel like it fits in with the rest of the evening. The science element of the play—Alyce (Sarah Herklots) is a laid-off researcher of Alzheimer's who has had to take a waitressing job—feels tacked on. Herklots and Cynthia Rice (as Gertrude) have a strong rapport and good comic energy. This play—the focus of which seems to be the current economic crisis—might be better served in a different kind of evening.
Newton's Genesis by ML Kinney is the crown jewel of the evening. The central conceit is how the apple plays such an important role in the story of Adam (religion) and Sir Isaac Newton (science); there is something so touchingly human as both Adam and Newton seek to understand despite the temptations of the Serpent. Kinney and her director Bobbi Master have crafted an extremely funny piece that is also thought-provoking. They are ably assisted by Meg Mark as a sexpot Snake, Nicholas Wilder as a myopic Newton, and especially J.J. von Mehren as a frenetic Adam.
Unraveled, representing the Industrial Revolution, is an extremely ambitious piece which cries out for a longer format. Riv Massey's play is set at a time when skilled workers are being forced out of work because of the new mechanization in the workplace. There are a lot of different ideas at play here such as the conflict between science and religion and how progress can often be devastating for the little guy. Craig Klein returns here as Ned Ludd (of Luddite fame) and stirs up discontent, especially for Dan Evers's Son and Misty Coy's Bess. The Son is pulled in one direction by Ludd and the other by his Puritanical Mother (Susan Levin). Given the constraints of the form, Massey can only point at certain key elements rather than develop them fully. Keep an eye on Levin as she slyly moves her character from the play's antagonist to its heart.
Drill by Andy Snyder is more of an SNL skit than a play, but it is a really good SNL skit. Three 10-year-olds—played by adults Matthew Campbell, Matthew Minor, and Miriam Mintz—have to duck and cover during a nuclear attack drill of the 1950s. Their sharp satirical dialogue is achingly funny and pokes holes in la bete noir of the time. The writer, cast, and director Kimberly VerSteeg make sure the laughs are deep and plentiful.
Greener Grass by Julie Fei-Fan Balzer is set in the far future when many humans are genetically engineered down to their emotions. Jane (Mary Cavett), someone who has not been modified, is married to uber-perfect Thomas (Aryeh Lappin). The play is, unfortunately, predictable and covers much of the same ground as a lot of other science fiction works concerning genetic engineering. Cavett does well as a woman who wants to conform perfectly to society and has trouble doing so.