Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
With Cal Rep’s Artistic Director Joanne Gordon at the helm of the Royal Theatre aboard the Queen Mary, the 2011-2012 season has set theatrical sail, opening Carson Kreitzer’s The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer this past Friday. For some, the mention of J. Robert Oppenheimer is enough to entice (or discourage) potential audience members, as his contributions to the world of physics (or the world of warfare for the latter) stand fast like the contents of Pandora’s box. For others, the title may speak to fans of T.S. Eliot and his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in which case, you may have already figured out the origin of the opening passage (lines 45-48 from “Prufrock”). Delving further into this instance of domino-effect inspiration, the “The Love Song” portion of Eliot’s title came from a Rudyard Kipling poem, “The Love Song of Har Dyal.” With all this borrowing, re-inventing, and evolving, it seems as the audience is at the end of a hundred year-old game of telephone and Gordon (director of Oppenheimer) is sending the latest version of the message.
Although the Manhattan Project happened over fifty years ago, Gordon points to Oppenheimer’s relevance in light of current global issues surrounding the use of nuclear power. “We just experienced the horror of the tsunami and the fallout, and on a very immediate level, recently the New York Times reported that they were now starting to sell beef out of the area in Japan near the nuclear reactors. The disposal of nuclear waste is reaching critical mass and politicians’ willingness to look the other way is putting all of us at risk,” she explains. “We’re dealing on a daily basis with the consequences of Oppenheimer’s work. And again, it’s not simplistic – do we become dependant on foreign oil and gas guzzlers, or do we seek a safer way?”
Precision aiming with a nuclear bomb.
The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer is not a story about nuclear war, weapons of mass destruction, or irradiated hamburgers. Kreitzer’s play is the story of one man, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and his rise and fall as: a scientist, an emotional being, a carnal creature, and a Jew. In her own poetic format, Kreitzer breaks down Oppenheimer’s life into two acts, “Math” and “Aftermath”. These two halves are truly the only structural features this play needs. The blurred lines between the scenes of Oppenheimer’s fractured life and his internalized, schizophrenic insights are indicative of the relationship between science, art, and the world at large. Playwright Carson Kreitzer states, “In physics, simultaneous realities can exist at once: the chair is solid: the chair is mostly empty space. When observing an event, the outcome is different relative to your position. This is the truth as I know it: elusive, multi-faceted, changing under observation. Also, capable of great explosion.”
Ms. Kreitzer couldn’t be more right.
Each isolated aspect of this production is an explosive contribution. Jeff Eisenmann (Scenic), Ronan Kilkelly (Lighting), Lan Li (Costumes), Justus Matthews (Sound), and Sharon Miller (Make-Up) are the designers behind this artistic cornucopia. Creating an illusion for a massive explosion was quite a task, but the technical elements fused wonderfully to fill the house. On the performance side, medals and promotions for all of them in this theatrical depiction of a military project. Craig Anton fills the shoes of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and amidst the severity of Kreitzer’s text, Eisenmann’s intricate set, and Gordon’s direction, it is no wonder his career has spanned many years in multiple mediums. Primarily opposite Anton is Cecily Overman as Lilith, the instigator of nightmares, flashbacks, and fantasies. Her namesake is the most significant demon in Jewish legend—being created before Eve (who was from Adam’s rib) and from the same dirt that Adam was. Dressed in a Hindu-inspired, skintight bodysuit (Oppenheimer is noted to embrace many Hindu scriptures and beliefs), Ms. Overman writhes, rattles, and reaches to the ends of the stage like a seductively vile (but honest) serpent.
What presents itself as an opportunity to showcase collaborative artistic talents from the graduate program at Cal State Long Beach, has become a barrage of overstimulation with multiple focal points that actually distract more than complement the action of the moment. Is the production value high? Yes. Will you receive your money’s worth with this cast and design team? Absolutely. Should you see the show more than once to catch everything? If you can, perhaps. If you have prior knowledge of Oppenheimer’s life or the Manhattan Project, then you won’t spend as much time trying to process the series of events, and you can enjoy the spectacle. Overall, The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer truly is an explosive start to this season, but unfortunately it isn’t as “user-friendly” as some of Cal Rep’s previous shows, and Gordon could send some theatre newcomers into shock.
Rating: 3 out of 5 masks.
Cal Rep performs in the Royal Theater aboard the Queen Mary. The production runs Tuesday through Saturday, September 23-October 15 at 8 pm, with the exception of October 6-8 and 13-15 which will be at 6pm. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for students, military, and seniors (55 and older). Parking at the Queen Mary is $8 for patrons of Cal Rep performances, $6 for CSULB students and patrons who have dinner aboard the ship. For tickets and information please call (562) 985-5526 or visit www.calrep.org.