Saturday, May 10, 2008

QED, Underground Railway Theater (Catalyst Collaborative), 04.05.08

It’s been a while, but this production really sparked my interest. As part of the Catalyst Collaborative, a partnership between MIT and the Underground Railway Theatre, this production sought to bring to life renowned physicist Richard Feynman.

Essentially, the play was a collection of Feynman’s stories drawn from his various memoirs, fused into a two-act drama by Peter Parnell and directed by Jon Lipsky. Many of the stories seem to have been drawn verbatim from Feynman’s published versions, so anyone who had read those books will have been familiar with much of the material. The lack of any new material, although not surprising, was perhaps somewhat disappointing – it would have been fascinating to see a more private side of Feynman on the stage, perhaps drawn more from his letters, than the bombastic figure he presented himself as.

More interesting, the play centred around a crucial moment for Feynman: his decision whether or not to undergo a dangerous operation that could potentially extend his life or end it. To see Feynman struggle with this decision produced some much-needed pathos and led to a moving climax. It helped that the role was well performed by Keith Jochim, who managed to add a certain level of multi-dimensionality to what otherwise could have been a rather flat character.

What I think most disappointed me about this (admittedly enjoyable) production was the lack of attention given to scientific ideas except as elements for exposition. There was, as one audience member noted in discussion after the show, “a lot of science in it”, but the scientific concepts never truly served as a motor for the dramatic action. Instead, this was a rather traditional piece about a man confronting his own mortality. Feynman’s profession almost seemed incidental – one imagines many would have felt similar feelings.

I would like to see a complementary piece developed which tried to dramatise the complex scientific concepts raised more explicitly. That might, perhaps, more fittingly demonstrate the benefits of scientists and dramatists collaborating in common endeavour.