August 4, 2000 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall
The Einstein Project would have delighted William Butler Yeats, who, a century ago, advocated a kind of total theatre uniting all the arts – voice, dance, text, and art (not to be confused with “scenery”). Yeats was inspired by the intense simplicity of the Japanese Noh theatre, and so it is interesting that Eric Hill, whose directorial hand is strongly present in this work, also looks often to Japan.
Yeats never made it to Japan; having Ezra Pound as a secretary was as close as he got. Hill has, though, and The Einstein Project bears traces of his insights and study. This Berkshire Theatre Festival production is very much a collaboration of all the theatre’s arts. Co-written by Paul D. Andrea and Jon Klein, it is has been co-directed by Hill and Oliver Butler, with dance choreographed by Isadora Wolfe. Lighting by Melissa McLearn and sound by Jason A. Tratta provide all the setting the play needs.
This is a play of many short scenes that flow effortlessly into each other. Place is suggested rather than defined, shifting from Germany to Switzerland to America; time is also fluid, beginning in l945 but cutting backwards and forwards. Characters live and die in the time warps.
Central to all is Einstein, physicist and man, German and Jew. He leaves Germany for America where, still insisting he is a pacifist, he writes the famous letter to Roosevelt that unleashes the horrors of Hiroshima. The play probes his conscience, exposes its frailties, lays bear his cruelty and inability to act towards others with love and compassion. He “thrives on ice” and “never talks as a friend.”
This man’s family, his country, are “outside”. He believes in “tracking the mind of God” but cannot look with pity into the human heart of his son. The play attempts to go beyond the stereotypical image of the scientific genius who at age 42 won the Nobel prize and give us the flawed and contradictory being that he was. In doing so it deals with scenes of shattering emotional intensity. The bomb of l945 destroyed all it touched and “only shadows were left behind.”
The play opens with the bomb. An orderly spaced group of humans stand staring upwards; they gradually, slow motion retreat, pull inward, circle and become a huddled ball in the center of the stage to be flung distortedly outwards, upwards, grotesquely mangled in slow motion, finally to stagger or be carried from sight. It is nightmare and dream.
The next scene has Einstein in Switzerland with his son Edward. They are in a boat, beautifully evoked by a stout rope and billowing white cloth flapped by two actors. In this scene Einstein’s unnecessary cruelty to the child is shattering as he tries to force him to understand a mathematical principal concerning the counting of his fingers.
Baffling the child, he insists the answer must be eleven; the rebuked child in dismay holds up his two hands fighting for his own answer of ten. Lines from this scene will occur later with the child, grown to a young man of 20, is in a strait-jacket, totally mad and still groping for the answer. One cannot help but fault Einstein’s lack of compassion in his human relationships.
Tommy Shrider gives a virtuoso performance as he delves into the character of the conflicted man that Einstein was. He reveals the dark underside of a man few people, perhaps Einstein himself, ever knew. As his son Edward, Amanda Byron, is especially moving. The scenes in which she appears are memorable.
The tightly knit cast in this play move, at times in slow motion, though scene after scene-Einstein’s former German colleagues as prisoners of war in England disbelieving the bombing news on the radio; his daughter Clara, (hauntingly played by Jennifer Elder-Chace) picnicking and dying; his fellow-scientist Werner Heisenberg (James Barry) exhibiting the compassion and conscience that Einstein lacks.
At times the scenes, strong in themselves, come too rapidly and one feels one has missed important clues. But then a tiny wordless scene, in which a Japanese woman pours tea, stabs the heart. This play would be more enlightening second time around. It is accessible, however. One delights in the unusual details of stage movement, in the fluidly shifting time and space that move to the tempos of the play’s essence. The plot line will be easier to follow if one arrives early and reads the program notes, especially those on chronology, which is deliberately shifted in this production.
Our theatre is invigorated by many kinds of plays. This is one of them. Eric Hill’s presence in the Berkshires making such theatre available to us is a blessing not to be taken lightly.