REVIEW: Louis Slotin Sonata (A Red Orchid Theatre)

Turning quantum physics into an educational sonata

louis slotin sonata poster louis slotin sonata poster - flip


A Red Orchid Theatre presents
Louis Slotin Sonata
Written by Paul Mullin
Directed by
Karen Kessler
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through October 24th  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘Tickling the dragon’s tale’ sounds like a fairytale requirement for rescuing the princess. It is not so enchanting! In fact, it’s the testing procedures for a plutonium bomb. A Red Orchid Theatre presents Louis Slotin Sonata, based on the death and times of a historical figure. In 1946, Dr. Louis Slotin has plans. Goodbye bombs! Hello biology! Louie’s bags are packed to leave the military zone and go university academic. Before his departure, he decides to give the dragon one more tickle. louis slotin sonata poster During the routine, Louis’ hand slips and the dragon bites. Everyone in the room is exposed to radiation. Louis Slotin Sonata focuses on the final nine days of a scientist. In a morphine induced haze, Louie tries to piece together his incident, existence and death. His Hebrew lessons and Nazi war criminal memories jumble producing hallucinatory action adventure and a choreographed Nagasaki shuffle. Louis Slotin Sonata is a concerto of science and religion with an underlying comedic rhythm.

Director Karen Kessler orchestrates a swift movement between the surreal and real. Louis’ final days are recollections of the past, present and future. His current state is spliced with future monologues from medical and military personnel reviewing the facts and delirious visits with historical figures. Steve Schine (Louis) portrays the scientist with apologetic arrogance. Former rogue and brilliant bomb maker, Schine transforms in humble vulnerability to a science geek fearful of being remembered for a blunder. The outstanding ensemble plays multiple roles with distinction. Guy Massey displays impressive range from soft-spoken scientist to abrupt military man to evangelizing religious fanatic. William Norris gives a heart-wrenching performance as a Jewish father losing his son to science. Anita Deely is the kind-hearted nurse struggling with anger over the avoidable tragedy. Adding to the laughs, Duncan Riddell haunts, Doug Vickers bumbles, Christopher Walsh deadpans, and Walter Briggs aka ‘Death’ calculates.

The entire ensemble shines around Schine in this dark comedy.

Louis Slotin wanted to fade into obscurity instead of being remembered for ‘dropping the big one’ or more accurately ‘poking the small one’. Playwright Paul Mullin has preserved Dr. Slotin in a playful but educational sonata. The show is an entertaining lesson in science, history and religion. The heavy-duty science instruction made me realize I would have done better in physics if my teacher had been one of the Louis Slotin Sonata ensemble.

Rating: ★★★

SHOW WARNING: I am cursed with A Red Orchid Theatre bad seat karma. In this production, there is only ONE seat obstructed with regularity. I sat in it! Don’t make my mistake! The theatre is split into three sections. In between, the left and middle section, don’t pick the sole seat on the second row without a chair in front of it. Kessler has chosen to place an actor’s back to the audience directly in front of that seat… in many scenes. The choice effectively blocks the action from view. On the positive side, if there was a real bomb, I would have been shielded from radiation exposure.

Running Time: Two hours includes a ten minute intermission

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REVIEW: Juliet (Theatre Y)

A powerful journey through faith and misery


Melissa Hawkins plays Juliet by Andras Visky

Theatre Y presents
Juliet: A Dialogue About Love
Written by Andras Visky
Directed by
Karin Coonrod
Royal George Studio, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through October 3rd  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Andras Visky’s autobiographical play Juliet plunges to some of the deepest abysses of misery. It describes his mother’s experience in a Romanian gulag from 1959 to 1964, where she had to raise seven children—Andras included—while imprisoned for being married to a reverend. The one-woman show explores the fine line where the flickering flame of the human spirit burns out. Visky lays bare some powerful truths that’ll have you reaching for the Prozac. The play bristles with gravitas. The utter, entirely-believable pain in the language strikes true in the heart, but the heavy subject matter weighs the piece down.

Melissa Hawkins plays Juliet by Andras Visky 2 In the subtitle, Visky claims he has penned a dialogue “about love,” even though only one character speaks for the whole duration. The author, along with the sharp-witted Melissa Hawkins portraying his mother, create a very real interaction between Juliet and her God. The relationship is complex and nuanced, even though we only hear and see one half. Hawkins’ biggest strength is clarity, a forte which makes the “dialogue” come alive. Visky packs his story with spirituality, understandable because he was a minister’s son, a minister that was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Several aspects of the real life narrative plug into the Biblical account of Job, a point Juliet makes several times. Her experience has her questioning everything, including both her prayerbook and the Communist propaganda proclaiming God’s non-existence.

Huge questions are at bat in Visky’s prose. Juliet debates suicide in as grand of terms as Hamlet. She claims she is well acquainted with the hand-maidens of death, even enjoying a hot bath at their hands. Sometimes she even implies regret for not joining them. She ponders, perhaps even dreams, about what it would be like to leave her children behind. Juliet fields the questions, I assume, most people that trek through that sort of agony ask themselves.

There are a few times Hawkins and Visky let some humor flutter out. There needs to be more of those moments. The releases are what make such a horrible ordeal not only a bit more palatable, but relatable. Even though Hawkins has been touring the show for years, Juliet’s sense of humor comes off as unsure. She has some brilliant moments, such as the first time she surveys her new home. After five days of being cooped up in cattle trains without access to a bath, she releases her naked children into the rain. It’s the little slices of joy, wit, and irony that make the show watchable. Hawkins appears to paint other moments with comedy, but they lack the clarity that defines the rest of the performance.

Director Karin Coonrod and her team create a world inside the tiny Royal George studio that’s incredibly Spartan but infinitely adaptable. Matthew Kooi’s lighting design is stunning, relying on several, single-instrument moments. His choices drastically set the perfect mood for each section and push the drama of the entire show. Hawkins owns the entire stage, which contains more surprises than it would first appear. One heartbreaking moment occurs when she contemplates her husband’s possible demise. When crying out that he is alive, she grabs onto a coat (apparently Visky’s actual father’s garment) that hangs from the flies, but quickly releases it when the more probable reality hits her, letting it sway forlornly.

In Hawkins beats the heart of a performer. She tosses herself into the sea of the character, even when the situation is so bleak. Visky, like many of Eastern Bloc writers, waxes existentially, shaping austere subject matter with grace. Juliet asks the audience to slog through a lot, but the final moments give the journey meaning.

Rating: ★★★


REVIEW: Debris of the Prophet (Prop Thtr)


When Reality Is More Interesting Than Fiction


Mark Kollar, Rick Edward Reardon from Prop Thtr's "Debris of the Prophet"

Prop Thtr presents
Debris of the Prophet
Written by Paul Carr
Directed by
Stefan Brun and Scott Vehill
Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston (map)
through October 10  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Socio-politically, we are going through some pretty crazy times. If you read the papers, you’ll know there’s a virtual Holy War being waged right now between religious fundamentalists. Bitter conflicts, such as protests over the building of a mosque near Ground Zero and the threat by a Florida pastor to burn a pile of Korans, exemplify this mounting tension.

Shalaka Kulkarni from Prop Thtr's "Debris of the Prophet" This rabid passion makes for great drama. And this drama has its share of thespians, from the aforementioned pastor Terry Jones to political pundits like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann. You’d think with such characters and tension, these real-life tales of religious zealousness would translate with ease to the stage.

Unfortunately, Prop Theatre’s Debris of the Prophet fails to facilitate this transition from reality to fantasy in nearly every way possible. Written by Paul Carr, the play has as much action as a college lecture and no character development beyond establishing trite archetypes. Throw in the fact that the whole thing is bursting with self-importance and you have one extremely unpolished production.

Debris of the Prophet concerns a political cartoonist simply named Bob (Rick Edward Reardon). Bob’s editor (Mark Kollar) has given him the opportunity to draw a series of religious-themed political cartoons to help attract readership. The idea is that controversial cartoons about religion will incite people, for better or worse, to pick up the paper. Unfortunately, Bob’s a little too skilled in striking the nerves of Muslims, Jews and Christians. What results is a mass protest in front of the news building, which eventually leads to violence and destruction.

The second act takes a dramatic turn into the realm of pure fantasy. Bob is sucked inside one of his own political cartoons where he encounters the physical embodiments of the three major religions. The three religions debate whether or not to kill Bob as punishment for his blasphemy.

Debris of the Prophet is practically devoid of plot. Very little really happens throughout the course of the play. In fact, the first act is composed of two redundant scenes that stretch on for way too long, while the second act amounts to a long-winded diatribe on the perils of religion and the importance of free speech.

In addition, there is almost no energy put into character development. We know very little about Bob other than he’s a cartoonist, and, thanks to a very fleeting and forced mention, his wife died of cancer. It soon becomes obvious that he is merely a two-dimensional prop that Carr uses to convey his thoughts on politics and religion.

Andy Somma, Rick Edward Reardon from Prop Thtr's "Debris of the Prophet"

None of this is helped by Stefan Brun and Scott Vehill’s lazy direction. A news reporter (Shalaka Kulkarni), whose accounts of unrest and destruction punctuate the play’s scenes, unconvincingly stands and ducks from unseen gunfire in front of the darkened stage. This gave me no sense of the reporter’s environment or the actual chaos ravaging the city, save for a few gunfire sound effects. In addition, characters rarely move from their marks and almost never cross the center point of the stage. What you end up with is all talk and no movement.

The only reason I didn’t give this play one star is because I can see this same script, with ample revisions, working for a 20-minute one act. The concept of a political cartoonist who gets sucked into his own controversial creation is rife with opportunity. However, as a full-length play, the novelty quickly wears off.

Debris of the Prophet starts off weak and ends up trudging across the finish line. For a show inspired by fascinating events, it’s surprising just how boring it is. If you really want to see a good socio-political drama unfold, just turn on the evening news.

Rating: ★½

Debris of the Prophet poster