Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 1999
I was pleased to learn that D.J. McDonald was bring an updated version of his "Oppenheimer Project" to the Manic Stage. I had enjoyed the version presented there briefly in October, and was interested to see what changes had been wrought over the past seven months.
The changes are subtle, at least to the casual visitor. I very much liked the new device of having the cast all figure equations in chalk on the all-black walls of the theatre. I was less enamoured of what I felt was a slower pace to the show. Scenes seemed longer . The deliberate overlapping of voices, actions and slide projections throughout the piece annoyed me more as I struggled to pay attention to everything happening and being said, instead of relaxing and absorbing the whole.
I said it before and I'll say it again, McDonald and his collaborator Jennifer Johanos, have worked on this project for many years and they know a lot about Oppenheimer. But what you see on the stage shares that knowledge only obliquely. They need to let the audience in on more of the information. I learned a great deal by reading my program after seeing the performance. I would have enjoyed the performance more if I could have learned that information while I was watching it.
Really, Oppenheimer 2.1 is just a series of scenes surrounding a lengthy modern dance piece entitled "Oppenheimer in the Trees" which McDonald had been working on and performing in various versions for well over a decade. I am not sure whether the two men are supposed to be Oppenheimer and fellow physicist Enrico Fermi, or whether, at that point, McDonald, who has been playing Fermi, is supposed to be "Oppenheimer's doppleganger", a character listed in the program. Is it a dance about Oppenheimer and Fermi struggling to collaborate, or a dance about Oppenheimer struggling with himself - the scientist against the humanist?
Whatever its purpose, one thing is clear. Theoretical physicists were never intended to perform interpretive dance. McDonald is a dancer, but Glenn Barrett, who gives a fine acting performance as Oppenheimer, is not. Alas, he dances like a physicist.
McDonald and Johanos have assembled the same fine cast, all of whom assume multiple roles, that appeared at the Manic in October. Really, they are all worthy of mention. Along with McDonald, Barrett, and Johanos (a fine actress whose work I invariably enjoy); Sean Patrick Fagan reprises his wonderful Groucho impression as well as giving sensitive portrayals in other parts, and Lorraine Bowen lends her powerful presence to the piece - assuming male and female roles with equal ease. Dancer Alicia Girgenti once again closes the show with McDonald's dance memorializing the bombing of Hiroshima and the subsequent suffering.
One thing that has always worked for me about Oppenheimer is the addition of a young boy to the cast, and I was happy to see the talented Michael Wartella return. The device of having a child, dressed in an adult sized suit, taking the role of various government officials - including former Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson and President Eisenhower (performed a la ventriloquist's dummy Charlie McCarthy) - reminds us of just who the "little people" and the "big shots" of the world really are.
"The Oppenheimer Project: Oppenheimer 2.1" runs May 27-30 and... at the Manic Stage, 55 Main Street in North Adams, adjacent to Zoie's Restaurant. The show runs about 90 minutes without an intermission. Dinner and theatre packages are available. Call 413-662-2323 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999