All roads lead to (Mental) home – ‘The Physicists’ at the Hollywood Fringe Festival

Courtesy last tape productions

 

“In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”
— J. Robert Oppenheimer (1947)

Physics has been unreasonably effective over the centuries in periodically overturning life as people know it. Newton and Einstein loom large in this history along with Galileo. Less well-known but no less important are Carnot, Maxwell, and Planck. Their work, driven by curiosity,  led to inventions of their own and others devising of substantial practical importance and lasting consequence. Most of us are thankful on balance for the engines and electricity, satellites and semiconductors spawned by these discoveries while we fret about the disasters, bombs, and savagery equally enabled by them.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s darkly comic ‘The Physicists’ trenchantly looks for the lines separating the pure from the applied, the moral from the immoral, and, not finding them, shows they never existed in the first place. Knowledge always comes at a price. Three physicists are interned in a posh asylum. Beutner thinks he is Einstein, Ernesti claims to be Newton. Möbius, brightest of all three, thinks he is himself but his frightening discoveries are inspired by visions of King Solomon. The game is to find, in a series of one-on-ones, Möbius’s  secrets and extract them from him.

The production under Ye’ela Rosenfeld’s direction is unexpectedly well-mounted with a large cast, set, costumes, and plotted lights. Surprising because Fringe shows share their space with others and each has to set up before and break down after every performance. The setting may be a posh Swiss sanatorium but some actors mumble in American accents, others stomp in German ones, and the rest interpolate, favoring the comic over the tragic. A two-piece band accompanies entrances and exits with guitar, percussion, recorder, and kazoo but crucial sound cues of Kreisler and Kreutzer are barely audible. A few of the play’s punches land but the overall impact is wildly uneven.

‘The Physicists’ can’t help but be timely – its subject is timeless. As creatures of Prometheus and children of Daedalus the blessings  and the curses of discovery have confronted us for centuries. Dürrenmatt’s deftly voices different aspects of the scientific (and artistic?) process – reason for some, revelation for others – while never taking his jaundiced eye off of the results. What happens once a discovery has been made? Not the workaday findings of workaday minds but the once-in-a-generation revolutions that change the world at a stroke. Can the discoverer hoard the knowledge, direct it, or withhold it at will? History says no. Once started, a fire can’t be unburnt.  Möbius, horrified by his findings, institutionalizes himself, impoverishes his wife, abandons his children, and murders – all for naught.

Fortunately in this instance, Josh Mann as Möbius and Cecily Glouchevitch as Nurse Stettler stand out, especially at the crucial moment when he tosses plausible deniability aside and traps himself forever in the web of the institution’s authentically crazy director.  Jacque Lynn Colton is fine in a Strangelovian turn as Fräulein Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd. While the variability in style and pacing doesn’t affect the dark comedy it takes a toll on tension and menace, the latter appearing suddenly toward the end of both acts rather than building up in stages to them.

And yet the play is worth a visit as much for place as for time. Los Angeles County is home to three major research universities, a passel of defense contractors, two Federal R&D centers, and an Air Force base. These are dwarfed by the so-called creative industries. The pursuit of art or science for its own sake, however, is in full retreat with the artists and scientists increasingly pressured for practical, commercially viable results and the attendant profits.  A cursory search shows that ‘The Physicists’ is seldom performed here. The European sensibility, European popularity, overtly political themes, and theatrical possibilities are all in City Garage‘s wheelhouse yet that company has never staged Dürrenmatt.

So, we return to the intractable problem of reaping the benefits of scientific discovery without the remorse. The easy out is to claim that where there is no solution, there is no problem. This is a false simplicity. It is not possible to work in science without a great deal of optimism, it is the only way to survive the constant setbacks. Good scientists are generally their own harshest critics, examining and re-examining the assumptions underlying their theories, experiments, models, and conclusions. In that sense, periodically examining one’s assumptions about the impact of one’s work is equally part of good science.   It can be dangerous (it sank Oppenheimer) but it is nevertheless the right thing to do.  The production deserves  thanks for the reminder.

The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
directed by Ye’ela Rosenfeld
at the Sacred Fools Theatre (Mainstage) /Hollywood Fringe Festival 2017
1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles, CA 90038
Final Performance: Friday June 23 2017, 7:00 PM
Visit http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4624 for tickets

Orchestre de Chambre Pelléas
Benjamin Levy, conductor
via the Green Room Creatives channel

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