Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009
(Click HERE for production photos.)
"The art of stage performance cannot be judged by how closely the actors can imitate or recreate ordinary, everyday life on stage. An actor uses his words and gestures to try to convince his audience of something profoundly true. It is this attempt that should be judged."
– Tadashi Suzuki (trans. J. Thomas Rimer)
On the evening of Fourth of July, 2009 I was seated in the third row of the Main Stage theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, watching The Einstein Project. Outside, all over the United States, mock bombs were bursting in air as our nation celebrated the 233rd anniversary of our declaration of independence from Great Britain with the traditional recreation of the sights and sounds of incendiary warfare without any of the bloodshed.
Inside, towards the end of the play, we were treated to a recreation of the detonation of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. First there was the brilliant light (but not so bright as to hurt the eyes), and then the ominous delay before a tsunami of low register surround-sound engulfed the theatre, shaking the building enough to be impressive without causing structural damage or endangering the spectators, while the actors reeled on stage in slow-motion under red lights.
Nothing like a nice, safe nuclear explosion to celebrate the 4th, a cheerful reminder that, while America now lives in constant fear that some nut-job will use a nuclear weapon, we remain the only nut-jobs on the face of the earth who actually have. In fact we were the helpful folks who invented them.
"Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
- Francis Scott Key, The Defence of Fort McHenry, 1814
The Einstein Project by Paul D’Andrea and Jon Klein premiered on the BTF Unicorn Stage in 2000. Like this one, that production was directed by Eric Hill, husband of BTF Artistic Director Kate Maguire, and starred Tommy Schrider as Einstein and James Barry, in his stage debut, as Werner Heisenberg.
Early in the play Heisenberg (1910-1976), Walther Gerlach (1889-1979, played by C. J. Wilson), Otto Hahn (1879-1968, played by Walter Hudson), and Max von Laue (1879-1960, played by Kyle Fabel), crowd around a large radio set on August 6, 1945. They are at Farm Hall, in Godmanchester, near Cambridge, England, where they and six other German scientists were detained during the last months of the Second World War, and they are listening incredulously to the news that a nuclear weapon has been not only developed by the Americans, but used. These men, each of whose work contributed in some way towards making nuclear power and weapons possible, were not entirely sure such a weapon could be built, but if indeed it has been they know that their friend and colleague Albert Einstein (1879-1955), by then an American citizen teaching at Princeton, must have been involved in its creation. While they all share in the guilt over the horror they have unleashed, the involvement of the pacifist Einstein is a deep psychological blow.
I was taught that any play whose point could not be concisely written on the face of a 3” x 5” index card (remember them?), was a bad play. There is no point to The Einstein Project, or rather, there are way too many points, none of them central. It would take many, many index cards to list them all. Any one of them might form the basis for an interesting play, although by this point in history I am beginning to wonder if all the interesting plays that could be written about the Second World War don’t already exist. I have certainly seen and reviewed a snootful of them in my eleven years as a critic.
You’ll notice I named five 20th century German scientists earlier. There are two more in this play, the husband and wife team of Fritz Haber (1868-1934, played by David Chandler) and Clara Immerwahr Haber (1870-1915, played by Brandy Caldwell). He developed mustard gas and other chemical weapons first used in World War I. She committed suicide during the brief period between the first and second use of his poisonous gases in battle.
While the average person knows who Albert Einstein was, most of the other scientists who appear in this play are not household names. So you would think that there might be some information in the program to help the audience understand who they were and what they accomplished. No. There is just a small grade-school-science-fair-type exhibit entitled “Meet the Scientists” in the snack bar area. That is why I have built in all the Wikipedia links, so that you can at least learn some basic information on these folks. Needless to say, they are very interesting people. The best parts of The Einstein Project come when D’Andrea and Klein allow us some insight into their characters.
These moments are also the only time when the actors make any direct contact with the audience. I included the quotation from Tadashi Suzuki at the start of this piece because Hill, and many of the actors who work regularly at the BTF, are adherents to his method of acting and actor training. Suzuki began his work in the 1960’s and founded his own company on a farm outside of Tokyo in 1976. His work is both quintessentially Japanese, and, if this production is any example, quintessentially of the 1970’s.
My reaction to the style in which Hill has staged The Einstein Project was that it was dated and alienating. Very early in the show the young ensemble actors (Megan R. Carr, Emily Grove, Cameron Harms, Betsy Lippitt, Tony Rios, and John St. Croix) walked slowly, robotically forward en masse on Joseph Varga’s drab set that resembles the inside of an old warehouse or airplane hangar. The set and the costumes by Charles Schoonmaker are all in muted, lifeless shades of grey and brown, with the occasional dab of red thrown in. How original – not! The actors do a lot of staring straight ahead and moving in slow motion. At one point they donned clear plastic half-masks. I haven’t seen those on stage since 1978, and I can't say I've missed them.
Here’s who I learned something about: Han, Haber, Immerwahr, and Einstein’s youngest child Eduard (1910 –1965, played by Miranda Hope Shea). Because Hill, D’Andrea and Klein allowed me to connect with those characters, I liked Hudson, Chandler, Caldwell, and Shea’s performances the best.
Here’s who I learned nothing about: Albert Einstein. Consequently, I did not enjoy Schrider’s performance.
This is a problem when your play is called “The Einstein Project.”
It is an even bigger problem when the actor you cast as Albert Einstein is a dead ringer for Gabriel Kaplan, as he looked when he played Mr. Kotter on “Welcome, Back Kotter.” Kaplan, in turn, was a Groucho Marx impersonator, and so anyone who reminds you of Kaplan also reminds you of Marx, who shared Einstein's German-Jewish heritage and looked a lot more like him than Schrider does. Come to think of it, Schrider really looked like the impossible bastard son of Groucho and Harpo – Groucho’s eyebrows and moustache under Harpo’s halo of curls.
Albert Einstein’s hair was not curly, it followed a law of physics all its own. When a photograph of the real Einstein is projected at the end of the play the lack of physical resemblance between Schrider and the original is made all the more striking. Photos of the other six scientists are also presented, and those actors all bear some passing resemblance to the people they are portraying. As I said in my review of Freud's Last Session, when you are playing an historical figure, some modicum of physical resemblance, real or cleverly devised, is necessary. The only attempt to make Schrider look more like Einstein consisted of a little gray sprayed into his hair during intermission.
It didn’t help that the script has Schrider cavorting humorously in silent film mode while Jesse Hinson plays a Pathe Newsreel announcer and describes Einstein doing hilarious things like eating in the cafeteria with Princeton undergrads, playing croquet with royalty, and displaying the fact that he chooses not to wear socks. I have no doubt that newsreels of that nature actually exist, but their repeated inclusion just heightened the sense that I was in Mr. Kotter’s class while he attempted to explain the Theory of Relativity to the Sweathogs.
D’Andrea and Klein’s script is not realistic and does not flow chronologically. Hence we have Immerwahr, who died in 1915, and Einstein, who emigrated in 1933, attending meetings of the “Uranium Club” (the German nuclear energy project) which wasn’t founded until 1939. Other gross licenses are taken with time and truth: Immerwahr’s suicide is depicted as a hanging when in fact she shot herself. Haber is shown as loyal to Immerwahr even unto death, when he actually remarried. Eduard and Walther Gerlach’s first names and von Laue's last name are misspelled in the program. And Eduard is shown dying as a child, when he outlived his father by a decade and died at the age of 55.
It is one thing to include historical inaccuracies to make a theatrical point, but as I explained earlier, there is no point to this play, so the inaccuracies merely beg the question of what information here can you trust? What "profound truth" are all these Suzuki-trained actors trying to impart? And if it is all a pointless load of hooey what am I doing sitting in the theatre when I could be out enjoying the fireworks with my family and friends??
There are hundreds of more accurate, more interesting, more informative books, movies, plays, operas, etc. about this subject out there. William Gibson's Golda’s Balcony, which unfortunately just finished its run at Shakespeare & Company as The Einstein Project was opening, gave a much more interesting take on one person’s struggle with the legitimate use of nuclear force. If you want to learn more about the men and the few women who were permitted to be part of the discoveries that lead up to the development of nuclear power and weaponry, I highly recommend the book Heisenberg's War: The Secret History Of The German Bomb by Thomas Powers, which inspired Michael Frayn to write his award-winning play, Copenhagen, which is also a MUCH better theatrical take on the subject.
The Einstein Project runs through July 18 on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for ages 13 and up. If you have a bad reaction to the use of a strobe light, be warned that the effect is used for all the Pathe Newsreel segments..
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009