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The Uncertainty Principle

Bethany Larsen's very smart comedy tackles big topics in a moving and funny manner. logo
Casey McClellan and Lauren Gleason in The Uncertainty Principle
(© Judy Baker)
Few playwrights can write an interesting dramatic work about Heisenberg's most famous theorem of quantum physics, which postulates that one cannot know both the position and momentum of an object with absolute precision. Even fewer writers can take such an idea and make it accessible to the audience through a moving, funny, meaningful, and relevant story. But Bethany Larsen has done both in The Uncertainty Principle, now being presented by the Milk Can Theatre Company at the Michael Weller Theatre.

When the play's heroine Cassie (Lauren Gleason) -- short for Cassandra -- first appears onstage, she's walking an imaginary tightrope for a traveling circus where a sadistic Ringmaster (Casey McClellan) tells her he's taken away her safety net. The scene may be a vivid fantasy or a metaphor for her life; in either case, we soon find out that she's actually a depressed temp worker who loses her stability when a fire burns down her uninsured apartment. Forced to move back home with her delusional mother, she tries to figure out where her life went wrong. She also obsessively calls a high school friend that she was secretly in love with, and avoids rebuilding her life by instead focusing on inane tasks -- like her attempt to count to a million without stopping.

The play's themes are heady, but it's told in such a breezy style that it never feels like a chore to follow. Existential crises are resolved through sword-swallowing lessons; anxieties about human destiny are expressed on a date in New York's Museum of Natural History; and there's even an erotic demonstration of String Theory as the Ringmaster explains to the audience that even a smooth pane of glass consists of vibrating, undulating particles, while two of the characters grope each other in the background. As with the works of Tom Stoppard, the audience will spend some time sifting through the many scientific, historical, and cultural allusions.

Aided by set designer Carrie Mossman, director Julie Fei-Fan Balzer turns all of the limitations of the compact theater into creative opportunities. Five solid black moveable flats serve for a burning building, a museum, a café, a car, and everything in between. Cassie draws a chalk icon of a phone on the wall before making a call. The Ringmaster sets up a parody Starbucks sign before two characters meet for coffee, and hangs clothes of black cardboard on a line to indicate that Cassie's New York apartment is literally a closet.

Gleason plays the lead role with openness, humor, vulnerability, and intelligence, grounding a whimsical play with emotion and humanity. As the Ringmaster, McClellan has the challenge of playing a character that symbolizes the fates themselves, and he rises up to it with fire, energy, and a dynamic stage presence. (He's also funny in an assortment of minor characters like a fire fighter, a real estate agent, and a barista.) Judy Chesnutt's hilarious performance of Cassie's mother is like watching Little Miss Suzie Homemaker on crack. Tim Downey convinces as the fumbling office worker who walks into Cassie's life in an unexpected way, and Chris Kloko plays her gay best friend Jason -- the least developed character -- with a quiet flamboyance.

A note in the program talks about the play's relevance in the post-9/11 era, but those overtones are obvious even without someone underlining them. Most audience members will understand that the heart of the play revolves around the difficulty of making sense of tragedy and disappointment in a universe that we like to believe has order.

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