|Indra's Net Theater photo by John Feld|
Being a scientist by training (among other things), I have a weak spot for play about science and scientists and the ideas that exploring the scientific world leads one to. As luck would have it, Berkeley has a theater company dedicated to just such plays, called Indra's Net Theater. They put on a science-y play or two each year, and although the productions themselves are not always at the same level as some of the other local companies, the plays are always about interesting topics.
I first stumbled across Indra's Net when they did their first show ever, a version of Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen." That being one of my favorite plays every, I obviously had to see it. And they did a credible job for a small theater with a small budget. Subsequent shows have included "Q.E.D.," a play about Richard Feynman and Physics, and "The Secret of Life," about the discovery of DNA.
The current play, still in previews (and running until January 15) is about Darwin and some of the ideas he fomented with his work on natural selection. It's definitely lighter on the science than some of their other shows, but about interesting material nonetheless.
The play is set in the present at a beach house in Malibu, California, where the late Charles Darwin (George Killingsworth) is hanging out, reading trashy novels and enjoying the scenery in the company of a young lady named Sarah (Leandra Ram), who makes banana shakes and thinks about a boy she met on the beach. They are soon visited by Thomas Huxley (Robert Ernst), one of Darwin's contemporaries and defenders, and later also by Samuel Wilberforce, an antagonist to Huxley (and by proxy, Darwin).
The three men waste little time in delving into long-fermenting disputations over the implications of Darwin's work, its meaning for religion and philosophy, and oh, by the way...why are we here (in Malibu), or anywhere at all (since we are dead)? The nature of heaven, purgatory, and hell all come up, naturally (and which of those, if any, is Malibu?).
I feel like the play has a lot of promise, and I hope more of it will come to fruition as the run continues. Since I saw a fairly early preview performance tonight, there were definitely some issues that need to get resolved.
Things start slowly, with just Sarah and Darwin in play. There isn't much action initially, and what there is doesn't make a lot of sense (negotiating over making a shake, banana or strawberry, etc.). Sarah, in particular seems rather stilted in her delivery, and doesn't really seem to get comfortable until after she sings later. She's there to be a contrast to the three old(er) men in the cast, but not, I think, in that way.
Indeed, the whole cast seems to still be getting their lines down, with lots of fluency errors and stammers that don't seem to be in character. In addition (or perhaps as a result), many of the lines are not delivered clearly, and Darwin in particular sometimes mumbles almost inaudibly (a pretty good trick in a room as small as the theater at the Berkeley City Club). The upshot of this is that the play feels sluggish throughout. My daughter described it as almost a dreamlike quality, but not in an effective way. Some of the dialogue needs to be snappy, especially some of the exchanges between Huxley and Wilberforce, who did, historically, dispute some of these matters. It seems implausible that after some hundred and fifty years, they have trouble putting their conflicting thoughts into words. So pacing needs to pick up to hold audience interest.
My whole family also had issues with the presence of Sarah: we're clearly supposed to wonder about her presence, but we all made up our minds early, and we all turned out to be right, so the big reveal about her late in the show kind of fizzles for us. Some of that is definitely a problem in the script, but if the delivery picks up the pace a bit, we won't have so much time to ponder her story. It just doesn't hold up to much examination.
I don't want to spend too much time harping on production issues when I have only seen an early preview of the play. I can tell there is more to the script that we got tonight, and I can only assume that the production will mature as it goes on. There are plenty of interesting bits to the script and the material it touches on that should be really good, but it needs to be presented in a snappier fashion and with fewer pauses for us to fill in our own stories while its going on. The show needs to lead, but not let us have to much time to think about where it's leading us.
It's hard for me to know what my bottom line really is on this show, as I'm not accustomed to putting down my thoughts on a show that isn't fully baked yet. I think it has a lot of potential. It's not as funny as the blurb on the website and in the inviting emails made it sound. I hope it will get funnier as it goes on, and not get dragged down in ponderous debate instead of a grabbier cross-fire.
I'm also a little unsure about the role of Darwin. Although he is the title character, the sort of "final showdown" is really between Huxley and Wilberforce, with Darwin literally standing off to the side watching and listening. His passivity might be meant to suggest that he's come to his conclusion and is just waiting to see whether either or both of the disputants will join him there. But it's also fairly easy to conclude that he doesn't need to be there at all, and I don't think that's where playwright Crispin Whittell is trying to take us.
At the end of the night, I know where the play ended, but I'm still not sure where the playwright or the director want me to be. I hope that comes clear as the production unfolds.