Theatre Mirror Reviews - "from Orchids to Octopi"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Larry Stark


"from Orchids to Octopi"
An Evolutionary Love Story

by Melinda Lopez
Directed by Diego Arciniegas

Set Design & Mural Painter David Fichter
Costume Design by Heidi Hermiller
Lighting Design by Kenneth Helvig
Sound Design and Composer Bill Barclay
Props Coordinator Roxanna Myhrum
Creative Technical Director Will Cabell
Technical Operations & Production Manager Taylor Hansen
Lead Assistant Mural Painter Yetti Frankel
Assistant Painter & Sign Artist Grace Peters
Assistant Dramaturg Michelle Hochberg
Dramaturg & Research Assistant Roxanna Myhrum
Stage Manager Kayla G. Sullivan
Scene Painters
Susan Cammer, Mary Flowers, Josh Winer
Production Crew
Dominique Burford, Jared Coffin, Tyler Brown, Chris Demers,
Andrew Doran, Jordan Maltais, Gillian Clark-Moon

Emma.....................................Kortney Adams
Charles/Prof. Farish/Rev. Malthus, et al...Tom O'Keefe
The Carnival Barker/Charles Darwin.......Wesley Savick
Doctor/Emma Darwin/Tiktaalik, et al.........Debra Wise
The Girl........................Kiva Bertman McElhiney

At the center of Melinda Lopez' immense play, Kortney Adams is Emma, a mural-artist creating a giant wall-sized painting intended to celebrate the 150th birthday of Charles Darwin, and of his theory that still shakes our world. She is also making a baby (and experiencing halucinatory dreams), she's arguing with her restauranteur-husband over their career-conflicts, she's mildly dyslexic, and her mind is stuffed and exploding with the wonder and mysteries of Evolution. After 90 minutes, and hectic avalanches of information and emotion, the mural (created by David Fichter) which starts as peripatetic panels of grey and evolves piece by piece, stretches across the stage --- and the play ends as it begins with one strikingly human image: a very pregnant woman asleep in a chair is shaken by a tiny girl saying "Mummy, it's time" and, having delivered a work of art, she is about to bring forth a child as well.

Wesley Savick, who appears repeatedly in snippets of the life and lectures of Darwin, plays a straw-hatted carnival barker promising Real Live Wonders, but he has another function: he is Change personified. "Pick a card," he demands and, purely by chance some break in DNA may hand you something new. (Debra Wise plays a primitive fish (Tiktaalik) who tries its luck and "You get a Neck!" "Ooooh, great! --- What's a neck???" A tyranosaur hoping for longer arms just gets "Bigger! I Always get bigger!") Savick humanizes the scientist who insists "I'm merely an observer"; he explains wide varieties inathe finches on different Galapagos Islands, and the use peacocks have for elaborately colorful tails, but tosses off "Barnacles! They fascinate me!" And he adores, plays with, and grieves over his daughter Ann (adorably played by Kiva Bertman McElhiney).

One of the many roles Tom O'Keefe plays, is personifying the tuberculosis bacillus, in a bloodstained butcher's apron, proud he has always evolved one step ahead of drugs ever since ancient Egypt. ("And my buddy E-Coli does it even faster!") The arms-race with drug-resisting diseases, and the lurking spectre of extinction ("We're losing species at the rate of Three Every Hour!") are the darker aspects of this game of chance we throw every time we give birth. The married-love story O'Keefe and Adams play is as warm and tender, and hot and prickly, as any modern life has to offer.

Besides playing a fish, (and half of a two-headed cow, but that's another story), Debra Wise plays Emma's tart no-nonsense ob-gyn doctor, and in starched outfit and mob-cap she's Darwin's maybe-married love --- also called Emma. And the continuing surprises of people disappearing behind tall, triangular set-pieces to dash right back as someone else has as much to do with the work of Stage Manager Kayla G. Sullivan and "production assistant" Roxanna Myhrum as with the work of Costume Designer Heidi Hermiller, just as the casters allowing twenty-foot set-pieces to slide and swirl effortlessly about the stage probably owe a lot to Creative Technical Director Will Cabell. (Myhrum is Dramaturg and long-time research assistant for the project, probably to the point where she might be called "Assistant Playwright".)

The ringmaster for this glorious sideshow is Diego Arciniegas, who has his cast skipping through time and eternities so effortlessly audiences are much too busy absorbing ideas too fast either to think or to forget. The National Institutes of Health commissioned this 90-minute epic, and Arciniegas and the Underground Railway Theater and MIT's Catalyst Collaborative have given them much, much more than their money's worth.

At the end, after the pieces of the puzzle, bit by bit, fall into place, Designer David Fichter's mural summarizes everything in the script. There's the enlarging spiral of a chambered nautilus, its segments filled with lively pictures; the endless twisty column of our DNA, like the picture's backbone; a leopard in full-gallop after a hysterical morsel of fur; there are the finches, and stages in the making of the horse, and a moth's huge tongue stuck deep into an orchid. The moth can eat nothing but that nectar, and only the moth can pollinate the orchid.
And life goes on. Even though a new card's chosen a million times a day.
Let's watch things change!

"From Orchids to Octopi" (31 March - 2 May)
CATALYST COLLABORATIVE @ MIT
@ Central Square Theatre, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, CAMBRIDGE MA
1(866)811-4111

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