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A CurtainUp Review
An Annotated List of Science & Math Related Plays Reviewed
With plays inspired by the sciences growing into a full genre, I thought readers would find it helpful to have this annotated list of such plays reviewed at CurtainUp. All things considered, everything on this list offered something of interest though there were as many misses as hits. As new science-math plays (and musicals, and operas) come along, they'll be added to this work in progress.
Arcadia -London revival and Arcadia--Broadway production
There are many who think that Tom Stoppard is Britain's best living playwright and that Arcadia (first published 1993) is his best play. David Leveaux's outstanding revival was enough of a hit at the Duke of York in London to transfer to Broadway in 2011. The play is set in Sidley Park, a beautiful Georgian mansion and estate. It opens exactly two hundred years ago in 1809 where the daughter of the landed gentry family, Thomasina Coverley is being tutored by the handsome Septimus Hodge who wants her to concentrate on Fermat's last theorem. The same scene is the setting for a twentieth century story. In the course of the play we examine algebra and algorithms, fashions in garden design, Byron's peccadilloes and many more possible diversions that the playwright allows us to expand mentally.
Debora Stein's play, commissioned by Ensemble Studio Theatre/Albert P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project, views the impact of the X-Ray through a series of comedy sketches and against the background of the 1895 Chicago World's Fair. A facinating idea though our reviewer found it too disjointed.
Michael Frayn's absorbing drama about the meeting between the German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his mentor Niels Bohr (Philip Bosco during World War II was one of the most cerebral and entertaining plays of the 2000 Broadway season.
Chekhov Lizardbrain. From Philadelphia Pig Iron Theatre Company, this more or less concerns a number of things. One stated influence is animal behaviorist Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation. Grandin's autism led her to suggest that the interpreting activity of the normal human brain trumps its own understanding of the reality known by other mammals, thus limiting human perception. Another credited source is Paul D. MacLean's work on brain evolution and behavior. Chekhov Lizardbrain is shaped around MacLean's Triune Brain Theory, which identifies three separate brain layers within the human brain: The pre-human lizard brain, the instinctual and emotional middle brain —like a dog brain, and the modern human brain, which is capable of reason and higher symbolic communication.
Completeness by Itmar Moses. -There's a lot of talk about algorithms and protein cultures in this amusingnew play, but there's also a lot of pillow talk. Good acting and direction and wonderfully slick staging will keep audiences engaged even if the tech talk between computer and biological science grad students. It's essentially a romance. . . .
Dora, an opera in 2 acts
The scientific delvings into the human mind can also serve as a mother lode for dramatic invention. In this "science opera" the subject is Freud's analysis of one of his best-known and frustrating cases.
Holderness Theater Company used Kipp Erante Cheng's adaptation of A Alan Lightman novel of the same name. It supposes that Einstein's dreams informed his inspiration for his theories on time, and takes a surreal look into his creative impulses. In this story, time is measured in images, not hours or days--time is variously a line, a circle, a hangman's noose. A musical of this little book-- essentially an amalgam of parables -- is also in the works.
Einstein: A Stage Portrait
This one-person bio-drama covered a lot of territory, with flashbacks from Einstein's Princeton home to various phases of his personal and professional life.
Einstein's Gift about the friendship between Albert Einstein a the German chemist Fritz Haber. These Nobel Prize winners differed widely on the scientist's purpose (Einstein believed that his job was to put ideas out there; Haber believed in harnessing his talents to practical application). Einstein, a pacifist, remained a Jew, while Haber pragmatically converted to Christianity, only to learn that to the Germany he loved so much he would always be a Jew. Ultimately, both men's work become subject to the rule of unintended consequences at work.
The Einstein Project
The Einstein met here was an intense, charismatic but not very loving or lovable man. His relationship with his overly sensitive son are used to most tellingly illustrates the contradictions and flaws in his personality. He had an intense relationship with the boy, yet overchallenged him cruelly and ends up putting his public concerns before the boy's needs. The well staged production written by Paul D'Andrea and Jon Klein that deserved a wider audience.
An Experiment With An Air Pump
Shelagh Stephenson's drama takes its title as well as its inspiration from a 1767 painting by Joseph Wright whose work often depicted scientific or industrial subjects. In "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" the painter captured a scene demonstrating that life could not exist in a vacuum. Three men and four women (the exact makeup of the cast) are watching the oldest man pump air out of a glass globe (the air pump) into which a live bird has been placed. A fascinating, multi-layered drama.
The Farnsworth Invention. Aaron Sorkin's docudrama about the invention of television. What we have here is a David and Goliath struggle — David being Philo Farnsworth, a young genius who was 12 years old when he had his monumental concept moment in an Idaho potato farm field; with David Sarnoff being the Goliath who wants to control the patent rights after the young inventor has managed to get funding to bring his concept to fruition.
Fermat's Last Tango
Instead of supplying the proofs for his theorems, the seventeenth century mathematician, Pierre de Fermat, often challenged others to do so. When a Princeton professor named Andrew Wiles finally proved this puzzling theorem in 1990 he became that rarest of species, a mathematician who captured the public's imagination. -- until a colleague reviewing his work found an error, or what mathematicians call a hole. Many months later, while sitting in his office, still studying that fatal error, he suddenly saw it. It is Wiles' obsessive stick-to-itiveness that led the young musical team of Joanne Sydney Lessner (lyricist/librettist) and Joshua Rosenblum (composer/lyricist) to their own obsession -- the determination to translate Wiles' struggle into a musical.
The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem
A get together with a bunch of mathematicians at a British seaside resort in 1911, for a frolic about something called Number Theory. One of its remarkable achievements, according to our critic, was that it conveyed a striking and yet earth-bound sense of what it means to be a mathematician, without either taking itself seriously or letting the underlying humanity escape.
Orville and Wilbur Wright rank alongside Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison and other tinkerers and dreamers whose vision and perseverance profoundly changed the lives of people throughout the world. Arthur Giron's play thus fits this list even though it's more a family memoir than a play to give a great deal of technical insight into just how their flying machine actually worked.
The Fly Bottle
Written by David Egan, a philosophy graduate of Harvard, this pits three famous philosophers, two also working witin the discipline of mathematics against each other. A famous dispute between two of the three -- Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper -- prompts a Rashomon-like recapping from each man's point of view, as well as that of a third great 20th Century mind, Bertrand Russell.
[The] How and the Why
Up and coming young playwright Sarah Treem's play about a mother and daughter, both strong-willed women and both evolutionary biologists, collide during a weekend of a major conference of The National Organization of Research Biologists. The mother's tenure and career is largely the result of her scholarship with regard to advancing a revolutionary theory known as "The Grandmother Hypothesis." The daughter is a brilliant young NYU graduate student whose own research and conclusions is based on an opposing theory "Menstruation as a Defense."
Essentially the story of a mother and son who live in the fictional Cotswold Village of Moreton in the Mold with an obvious parallel in Shakespeare's Hamlet. The scientific link is the son's occupation of bee keeping and discussions of theoretical physics and the gap between reality and our perception of it.
Mac Wellman considers Hypatia, the 5th Century mathematician, pagan philosopher and inventor who was considered so inherently dangerous that Christian monks found it necessary to drag her through the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, before dismembering and then burning her body. The play follows Hypatia's imaginary trajectory from that spectacle through 8th Century Byzantium and then on to the early 20th Century.
Carl Djerassi comes to playwriting as a man of science whose aim is to make science comprehensible and compelling for the layman. In this debut play, the chemist who developed the birth control pill and shepherded it to worldwide success has taken a cutting edge area of biomedical science known as intracytoplasmic sperm injection or ICSI and dramatized it in very human terms. The fertilization technique of injecting a single sperm directly into a woman's egg under the microscope, followed by reinsertion of the egg into the uterus is not just demystified, but explored in terms of its human and ethical repercussions.
Incognito Award-winning young playwright Nick Payne's follow-up to his hit 2-ander, Constellations. Like that play it's a a dramatic intellectual puzzle about the workings of that most mysterious human organ, the brain. He's used the same edgy structure of fast-paced viewpoint switches and upped the number of actors from two to four. Unlike Constellation which was basically one story replaying the same characters' varied comings and going in parallel universes, Incognito zig-zags back and forth between three stories — two loosely fact-based and one completely fictional — involving twenty characters. The most dramatic and probably best known real story is Payne's version of how American pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey stole Einstein's brain. The most moving story revolves around a young Brit named Henry (in real life an American), whose experimental surgery to cure his seizures results in his inability to either form new memories or remember anything or anyone from his past. The most contemporary and strictly Payne inspired scenes involve two women who meet through a dating service. One is a neuropsychologist who's only recently left a conventional marriage and is still coping with being open about her new sexual identity and the other is a less inhibited lawyer.
The very real and well documented conflict and subsequent legal battle between science researchers at Arizona State University and the Havasupai Native American tribe provide the bases for Deborah Zoe Laufer's play. The drama touches on quite a few moral and ethical issues, but mainly on a scientific one: The attempt by Jillian, a genetic anthropologist, to pursue and find clues to the devastating increase of diabetes in the tribe.The overall theme: That the results of scientific research may be as stunningly indeterminate and inconclusive as is the belief and dependence we have on our eternal myths to validate who and what we are.
The Lone Runner: The Mythical Life Journey of Nikola Tesla
The story of Nikola Tesla has been dramatized twice in recent years-- this stunning version with puppets is my favorite, not only about Tesla but of all the plays about men of science recently seen.
The 2007 EST/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation collaboration by Damien Atkins, directed by William Carden. While Atkins tries too hard to cover every possible cause and treatment methodology for autism, a stellar cast headed by Lisa Emery, made for an absorbing two hours.
The 2005 commission for the EST First Lights Festival by Carey Perloff. The scientific field in the spotlight is archeology-- the main quest revolves around a lost statue of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. The playwright uses history to bring a real life love affair to a happy ending.
Louis Slotin Sonata
On May 21, 1946 at the Pajarito Canyon Site, part of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, Louis Slotin was demonstrating to a colleague how to do a "crit" test for an atom bomb. A miscalculation led to Slotin's death from radiation nine days later. Paul Mullins' play focuses on his final days.
Science as in sci-fi has, seeded a whole mythology about Victor Frankenstein and his scientific studies and eventual obsession with defeating death by creating new life from the bodies of the dead. This Classic stage adaptation was adapted by Neal Bell.
Arthur Giron's play about Richard Feynman -- who was also the subject of Lincoln Center's several times extended QED (see below) -- produced as part Ensemble Studio Theatre's second annual First Light Festival (dedicated to the theater of science and technology).
Caryl Churchill's provocative play about human cloning, reviewed in London and in New York, where the New York Theatre Workshop drastically reconfigured its seating area to replicate a19th Century medical operating theater. The play revolved around a father coming face to face with three (of possibly numerous other) cloned versions of his son.
The Other Play -- a World premiere by Sharr White about a a biophysicist specializing in neurological medicine. Just as she's busy promoting a break through drug she finds herself beset by the first symptoms of her own memory loss. Her condition kicks up conflicting and confusing memories of a family tragedy ten years earlier. A slick, absorbing segue between surreal scenes set in her own inner landscape and heartbreaking reality. The play, besides working as a science mystery, also works as an emotional thriller and family drama.
David Auburn's wonderful play takes its name from a mathematical procedure, but it's accessible to a broad audience since you don't have to know what a prime number is to sympathize with its characters, three of whom are indeed mathematicians.
Peter Parnell's biodrama about Richard Feynman was created especiallyfor Alan Alda whose charismatic presence made it a hit both in Los Angeles and New York.
Lanford Wilson's play about four people contemplating the repercussions of the Los Alamos project in which two of the characters (engineers-- physicists, really) participated.
Relativity. Cassandra Medley's contribution to Ensemble Studio Theatre's 2006 focus on science. The play explored the interaction between racial politics and genetic research, with particular focus on the controversial idea that higher concentrations of melanin in the genetic makeup of people of color make them mentally, physically, and spiritually superior. Our critic was disappointed that this wasn't more successfully dramatized or presented.
The Ruby Sunrise
Rinne Groff's play about a young woman bent on inventing the first electric television set. She succeeds-- yet fails, and twenty-five years later, her daughter has become a television studio script girl and is determined that her mother's story be truthfully told. Initially, done out of town, the play had its New York premiere at the Public Theater, helmed by Oscar Eustis, its original director.
The Secret Order. Robert Clyman's contribution to EST's 2002 First Light Festival takes us behind the scenes of a prestigious research institution in New York. It may not have enlightened you a lot about what medical researchers do with their test rabbits and how they compute their findings, but neither was it a for science majors only play. Clyman has done considerable rewriting of this fast-paced psychological drama and this updated and recast version had a successful run at the Merrimac Theater and from there, moved to 59E59 for a limited run. Review of the 2007 production here .
Serendib. How can you make science stageworthy so that the audience is enlightened and entertained? This year's commissioned playwright for the First Night Festival,, David Zellnik, opted to take the cliche about monkey see, monkey do and harness it to a study in the area called Serendib in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka where scientists have been studying the behavior of toque macques or wild monkeys in a protected habitat for thirty years. For the fun and entertainment factor he decided to show the monkey watchers own behavior aping (excuse the pun) their subjects. To ramp up the comic potential the playwright added a pair of Cockney film makers who arrive at the researchers' camp to film the monkeys and their watchers for what they hope will become a frequently replayed PBS special.
Composer Ellen Meadow used the theories of celestial mechanics formulates at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th Century to create a stunning piece of musical theater that deserved to have a longer run than it did.
These were men for whom science was sufficiently expansive that it encompassed religion and art. Galileo, a Catholic, spent much of his life at odds with his church. (The picture above shows him in one such confrontation, with an outsized Pope Urban VII.) Kepler, a Lutheran, devoted much thought to reconciling his faith and his scientific discoveries. The importance of periodicity and harmony in the work of both Galileo (a musician's son) and Kepler made music elemental to their inquiries.
It is thus only superficially surprising that this subject matter makes fine fodder for a work of music-theater. Indeed, composer Ellen Meadow has focused quite precisely on the musical interpretation of Galileo (represented by Gina Leishman's accordion.) String Fever. The main offering of the fifth annual First Light Festival from Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloand Foundation Science & Technology Project. The six-actor ensemble comedy coils a woman's age forty issues around the elusive String Theory introduced to her by a new man in her life.
The Talking Cure
Set in the early years of the twentieth century, Christopher Hampton's play deals with the founding fathers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Though centered on Jung's relationships, the play looks at the issues which initially united these two pioneering psychiatrists and that which eventually divided them.
A nother play about the underappreciated Nikola Tesla, whose contribution to science is with us every time we flick on a light switch. Even though the invention of electricity is associated in most people's minds with Thomas Edison, it was Tesla's discovery of the principle of the rotating field which is the basis of most alternating-current technology and which truly ushered in the age of electrical power.
Tooth and Claw. Another offering of the Ensemble Studio/Alfred P. Sloand Foundation Science & Technology Project. This one by Michael Hollinger, about a biologist at the Galapagos Darwin Research Center caught up in a political battle between poor fishermen and conservationists.
It is 1858. Charles Darwin struggles to finish his book on The Origin of Species, and give the world his theory of natural selection, while coping with family illness and his own loss of faith. Meanwhile, halfway around the world, an unknown explorer named Wallace has come up with the exact same theory.
Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen. Those of us who remember high school math with a grimace may not think of pi as inherently romantic. That's not the case for the characters of Kathryn Walat's new play. In this sweet, funny and appealing new addition to the Women's Project, math is more important than prom, and the Big Game, and even being popular. (Like, totally.) It's a math nerd's answer to Spelling Bee.
Wit — Margaret Edson's Publitzer Prize winning play about a poetry professor's unwinnable battle with cancer. An emotional powerhouse, at once difficult and exhilarating to watch. The playwright's only work.
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