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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
by Les Gutman
Since my experience with the subject for which Richard Feynman earned a 1965 Nobel Prize ended abruptly when I was awarded a "C" in Physics 101, I don't know if there is a technical scientific name for the phenomenon at work in Arthur Giron's Moving Bodies. In physics, we learn here, when atoms are shoved into each other, heat is produced. I am going to take a leap and assume that there is also some principle to the effect that if too many of these atoms are shoved into a finite amount of space, inertia will be substituted for motion. That's my hopefully scientific observation about what happens onstage in this new play. If it's bad science, then perhaps I can be forgiven for demonstrating that theater doesn't always comport with the laws of physics.
At the core of this "centerpiece production" of Ensemble Studio Theatre's second annual First Light Festival (dedicated to the theater of science and technology) is an intriguing story about one of the most important scientists of the last century. Feynman (Chris Ceraso) was a brilliant kid, improbably catapulted to MIT from the lowly beach town of Far Rockaway, NY. He went on to rub shoulders with Einstein at Princeton before being recruited by J. Robert Oppenheimer (Robert Boardman) to join the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. He was also a flake, unable to rein in his own libido or to resist any intellectual challenge, even if it meant engaging in criminal conduct like cracking high security safes.
For the scientifically-challenged among us, there are two thrilling things a scientist can do. One is to translate a complex scientific notion into terms that even we can understand. The other is to invent something the significance of which we can readily appreciate. Feynman does both. At both ends of the murky arc of Moving Bodies, Feynman makes the mysteries of science so simple, we begin to tap into the nature of his genius. As a high-schooler on a trip to the Chicago Exposition in 1933, he diverts a policeman who's about to arrest him by teaching him why friction causes heat. At the end of his life, he is a thorn in the side of the otherwise politic Inquiry Commission into the Challenger disaster when he uses a glass of ice water to explain easily why the "O" rings lost their resiliance, and the space shuttle disintegrated .
On the other point, we may not be too comforted to know Feynman discovered one of the key formulations that lead to the successful explosion of the atomic bomb, but we can certainly rejoice he also made the post-Cold War more entertaining by discovering the photon laser beams that read CD's.
I mention all of this in detail because it practically gets lost in the thicket of extraneous subjects Giron has shoehorned into this play. That such a bright man can have so much trouble marshaling "that force of nature known as woman" is an interesting sidebar, but here we have scene after pointless scene about it, and it's not that remarkable to start with. Similarly, his relationships with his parents, his sister and his wife (who dies of lymphomic tuberculosis) are of passing interest, but nothing in them warrants the amount of our attention they get. And then there are the further detours into anti-Semitism, the plight of women at the dawn of modern science and the seeds of the military-industrial complex, all worthy but better saved for another day.
Ceraso does a fine job with Feynman notwithstanding. He's a likable nerd, an accessible scientist and a perplexing addict to the charms of women. The women in his life -- his mother (Polly Adams), his sister (Amy Love), his wife (Tracy Sallows) and every other "dame" who catches his attention (Julie Leedes) -- are portrayed convincingly. The men are less successful, especially Robert Boardman's silly choices with regard to Oppenheimer, who comes off as a preposterous, overwrought caricature.
Chris Smith's direction evinces some very clever touches, as well as some wonderfully practical traffic management, but neither can overcome the problems that only a less reverential treatment of the script could hope to solve. Kert Lundell's multi-level unitized set design, with its sixties-ish array of doors, hide-away backlit panels, hutches and stowaway furniture, is as satisfying as it is functional.
Editor's Note: As part of this second annual First Light Festival, Ensemble Studio Theatre recently co-sponsored a fascinating seminar on the making of another science play, Copenhagen. For our feature on that seminar go here and for our review of that play go here.