Plays about science have a charm all their own; the best of them combine the emotional impact of theater with the nerdier satisfactions of learning something. Recent high-profile successes in the genre include Michael Frayn's physics tutorial Copenhagen, which snagged last year's Tony for best play, and Proof, David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning, math-driven family portrait. We've also been favored with the British writer Shelagh Stephenson's Experiment With an Air Pump and now, then, again, a Fermilab romance by Chicagoan Penny Penniston.
The latest playwright to set up his booth at the science fair is New Yorker Matthew Wells, whose Schrödinger's Girlfriend opened at San Francisco's Magic Theater on October 26 and runs through November 18. Wells' play imagines the singular relationship between German physicist Erwin Schrödinger--who famously proved that his cat was simultaneously alive and dead--and a sexy cabaret singer named Hansi Haas. It's one of those rare stories that allows for both hotsy-totsy cabaret numbers and analysis of the behavior of subatomic particles.
Wells loves smart plays; he may be the only person who left Proof disappointed that there wasn't enough math in it. "They were talking about the math as they walked offstage, then they'd come back on and they'd already explained it," he recalls. "I thought, 'I want to be part of the backstage scene!' " His own brainstorm was to write "a romantic comedy where the rules follow the laws of subatomic physics." Got it. But, umm...what are those laws, exactly? "Cause would not happen before effect, things would happen in weird orders, things would happen randomly. You would be able to pin a person down but you wouldn't know where she was going." Come on, Matthew--isn't love complicated enough already?
WHAT AN ATHOL!
Physics isn't the only subject on the nation's theater schedule this month. We've also got world history in the form of The Island, which surfaces at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on November 6.
The Island is a landmark of modern political theater--one of three so-called "statement plays" by Athol Fugard. The South African playwright created this work in 1973 in collaboration with the actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who starred in the play's world premiere staging in Cape Town. Kani and Ntshona, both black (Fugard is white), also headlined the 1975 Broadway production that netted Tony awards for both of them. They did the play in Butterworth, South Africa that same year. More recently, they have been back at it, performing The Island at London's National Theater in early 2000, in Toronto this summer, and now at the Kennedy Center.
In the play, Kani and Ntshona appear as prisoners held at South Africa's Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. There they rehearse Antigone, which they intend to perform for their fellow inmates. I asked Paul Bilyeu, a Kennedy Center spokesman, if it was difficult to get the original stars to do the play. "I think they're the only people who do do it," Bilyeu responds. "The script is printed now, but one of the interesting things about The Island is that, when it was originally done, it didn't have a script. They had to memorize it--otherwise, the pages would have been confiscated and destroyed." In other words: Kani and Ntshona are part of the play, and the play is part of them.
Fugard's latest, Sorrows and Rejoicings, premiered at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey last year. It begins a run at Manhattan's Second Stage Theater Company in January, giving the theater a month to towel off after Mary Zimmerman's water-bound Metamorphoses closes on December 2.
DON'T AXE, DON'T TELL
November 1 is opening day for the Goodspeed Musicals (Connecticut) production of Lizzie Borden, the show by Amy Powers and Christopher McGovern that was first presented in 1998 by the American Stage Company, starring Alison Fraser. Christiane Noll plays Lizzie in the Goodspeed production.
Legend has it that, in August of 1892, Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks, then saw what she had done and gave her father 41. Or maybe she didn't. It's one of those classic U.S. court cases that whipped up a media frenzy, then passed into mythology without the defendant's guilt or innocence having been firmly decided. The musical, which McGovern says is neither a campy spoof nor a Sweeney Todd style mood piece, first evolved in the heady days of a more recent American spectacle.
"I know from the outside that it might seem like a bit of an odd idea," McGovern says, "but it actually started right around the time of the O.J. Simpson trial. Someone on TV drew parallels to the Borden case: sloppy police work, wealthy defendants, and so on." On another level, McGovern was interested in what the Borden affair has to say about gender relations of the time. "I read a very interesting quote during my research," he says. "If you were able to believe that Lizzie Borden capable of committing this crime, you would have to look at your wife and your daughter very differently. Women were seen as property then; they were not considered whole people. But a delicate flower certainly wouldn't pick up a hatchet and do something like this."
Among the most fascinating aspects of the case is that, according to a contemporary New York Times poll, spousal disagreements over Lizzie's guilt led to 1,400 divorces. Hopefully, Lizzie Borden will prove less controversial in this regard than Lizzie Borden.
COMPANY LOVES MISERY
Up in Canada, Tribal Productions--an eight-year-old company housed at the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts--is preparing for a long Halloween. Its November production is Simon Moore's stage adaptation of Misery, Stephen King's novel about a novelist and his fan from hell (the latter brought to terrifying life by Kathy Bates in the 1990 movie version).
"One of the drawbacks--or challenges, I should say--is that people coming to see [our production of] Misery have preconceptions," says Tribal leader Eli Lukawitz. "They've read the book, they've seen the movie, they know James Caan and Kathy Bates. They're thinking, 'I'd better get what I'm hoping for.' There's got to be that element of catching you off guard, scaring the crap out of you if we have to. That involves a lot of finely tuned production elements and, of course, the work of two really great actors." The thesps in question are Angelo Celeste as the incapacitated novelist Paul Sheldon and Barb Muller as his obsessed fan and tormentor, Annie Wilkes.
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