Whether or not the entire text of Alan Lightman's imaginative 1993 novel Einstein's Dreams is contained in the Aporia Players/Tobacco Bar adaptation, I can't say with certainty. Maybe it just seemed that way. Without question, the piece retains most of Lightman's light-footed prose and, in doing so, raises the literary value of this year's Fringe by several notches--not to mention its good-taste level.
It was Lightman's amusing and also profound notion to spin a series of fantasies around Einstein's formulation of his relativity theory. The author begins with Einstein sorting out his ideas in the spring of 1905, theorizing a world wherein time slows down and speeds up. Lightman then imagines further discoveries: Is it also possible that there are locales in the universe where time runs backwards or in a circle or stops altogether or can be caught in the hand like a bird?
The Lightman novel has been adapted for the stage by Ralf Remshardt, David Gardiner and Paul Stancato, with Stancato as director-choreographer. These three have crafted a work for nine performers that draws on the conventions of story theater, choral readings, and dance. As this troupe recites Lightman's words, occasionally in unison but more often singly, they also enact them. Dressed in white outfits that suggest early 20th-century summer togs, they arrange themselves into all manner of inanimate objects and play scores of characters: They're children playing, families on an outing, Einstein fishing with a colleague, or lovers frozen in place as if on Keats' Grecian urn. They're buildings, desks, bookshelves, whatever. The props used are minimal; a skateboard is the cutest, and a long piece of white fabric is the one that shows up most often as a body of water, a wall, a shroud, and so on.
While elegant and creative, this on-the-hoof deployment of Einstein's Dreams isn't flawless. At certain moments when the nine actor-dancers are going solemnly about their assignments, the stage adaptation can abruptly seem grandiose and pretentious. At other times, Stancato arranges the players in the kind of amateur tableaux vivantes you might see among the frolicsome weekend guests at a Surrey country home. Also, the mise-en-scene is annoyingly redundant; a sentence is uttered about one person handing papers to another as we see the same action taking place. Eliminating some of this verbal-visual echoing would shorten what feels like an unnecessarily long show.
Stancato faces another problem in mounting this dance to the music of time. He needs players who can act and move with great grace plus fit neatly into an ensemble without losing individuality. Appearing in this production (it's been done elsewhere, notably the American College Theatre Festival, where it was named best play) are Charlie Coniglio, Drew D'Andrea, Leigh Elliot, Jennifer Sorika Horng, Joe LaRue, Rebecca Olympia, Brian Rhinehart, Tamar Schoenberg, and Elizabeth Wolf. The program doesn't link them with any of the characters they played, and Einstein is portrayed by at least three of them. A few of these players act well but their movements lack polish; others dance well but act less well. These last are the ones who often make it seem as if a whole lot of declaiming is going on in this piece. (Incidentally, the entire cast should be given Fringe medals for stamina; they perform in an non-air-conditioned space called Paradise that would more accurately be renamed Hell. At the finish of the performance I attended, these nine theater soldiers were sweaty but unbowed, which is more than I can say for many in the audience.)
The dramatized version of Einstein's Dreams succeeds as well as it does, in part, because Lightman's novel is so multi-layered. It's about Einstein and time and mutability, yes--but, as metaphor, it's also about the infinite possibilities of fiction. Lightman is saying that a premise can be spun into any number of variations. In adapting his novel, Stancato, Remshardt and Gardiner add a corollary to Lightman's axiom: theater also can be presented in uncounted ways. The creators have attached themselves to the Einstein and Lightman line of dreamers and dreamed up an engaging, if not absolutely new, approach to theater technique. Abetting them is composer David Homan, who has provided a nearly constant but unobtrusive score apparently built around Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," which Lightman's Einstein likes to listen to.
In recent weeks, science news columns have reported that the speed of light, assumed by Einstein and his successors to be a constant, is now thought by astrophysicists to be changeable. What a serendipitous turn of events for Einstein's Dreams, both novel and adaptation. These works now seem jubilantly ahead of their (ahem!) time.