False Assumptions: The title says it all!

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

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Poster from the production.

Lawrence Aronovitch’s latest play has an extremely interesting content.  It  revolves around the meeting between three eminent women mathematicians/scientists, emerging from different periods of  western history (400 BC, the 19th century and the early 20th century) who find themselves together  in a global space/time, on the upper level of the set, filled with  books and records. These are remnants of Marie Curie’ archives. These woman have been summoned back from the past by a young girl, a factory worker  who is dying of radium poisoning.  She wants explanations. 

As these scientists  read Curie’s journals and writings, they discover her biography, her personal life, and her professional tribulations as the discoverer of the theory of radioactivity.  They also make comparisons between what they read and what happened in their own lives which also bring in historical anecdotes concerning the different time periods from which each of the women originated. In those exchanges, discussions arise about the prejudices facing women in the world of science, the problem of immigrants in France, the deadly repercussions of radioactivity in the contemporary world, the ethical responsibility of the scientist who makes such discoveries, and a lot more.  Now, as these women located above, gossip and read out loud the content of those  journals, the  staging on the lower level of the set, shows us sketches of moments in Marie Curie’s life that gave rise to those writings in her own time. Here, Marie Curie, her husband, her lovers, her colleagues, and all those involved in her life,  perform   what we hear. The movement alternates then between what is narrated on the upper level and what is played out on the lower level, fore grounding two spaces in what could also suggest the rigid class hierarchy in France, against which Marie Curie, as a Polish immigrant, had to struggle all her life.

Already the problems seem obvious.  The text  is a mass of information where  a long list of  subjects spins a twisted web of complex  ideas that move back and forth in such a way that none of the problems is developed  clearly in the text and certainly, this means that the director is left to fend for herself. One of the biggest problems is the confusion of narrators which has the three “dead” women appearing to act as  voyeurs, observing what happens from their upper vantage point,  as they narrate the life of Curie based on their reading of her journals. At the same time, they switch  back to their own times and comment  on their own problematic lives as women scientists in their own past worlds. There is an assumed realism, there are memory sequences that intrude from time to time, there is much explanation and even some disagreement among the women as to how to proceed with the examination of Curie’s life. The play is flooded with everyone’s stories, with everyone’s problems and thoughts, thus becoming so unfocussed that it detracts from the essential story of Marie Curie’s discovery.

In a similar way, Marie Curie narrates portions of her life, but she does this from a lower level of the set. However, she is not only the narrator, she also appears to be reading her own notations in her journals, before she quickly becomes herself in the present and starts performing her own life, as the details are read from above. The stage esthetics implied in the treatment of all the characters are full of traps that don’t allow an interesting theatrical performance to blossom. Voicies  flit  back and forth from one perspective  to another, from one time frame to another. There was a lot of very  interesting information but the theatrical form did not take hold of the complex content about science and ideas, and the personal stories of each of these women so it became a rather flat staged reading with some brief moments of theatre of a very questionable nature.

It obviously posed enormous problems for the director and for that reason, she should have done much snipping and reorganizing of the material. We know that this is the first version of the play and since it is the produced text  and not the written text that really  makes the  play, it is the right of the director to do such things. I wondered why this director did not go that far?  Or maybe she did, but it didn’t show. In any case, much rewriting is absolutely necessary, especially when the text gives such little attention to the actual theatricality of the work  It was clear that this director was overwhelmed by the unwieldy material which is why we had the impression that this performance resembled a dress rehearsal, rather than a finished product. It was almost as if the director just gave up!  The  shifting from the upper area of the scientists from another age, to the lower area  of Mme Curie’s period was all done in a most awkward and at times even sloppy and unimaginative way, completely neglecting any of the tools of the stage:  exits and entrances were not motivated, possible use of good lighting as well as musical aids were ignored. The encounters were badly acted by most of the students. This fact plus the blocking, often made the scenes look like high school skits. And it seemed to get worse and worse.,

I could mention the names of  several  students  who  might produce better work in other circumstances such as Hannah Gibson-Fraser (Marie Curie), and Holly Griffith (Rosalind, the British Biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer).  However, if one considers that this is the graduating class of the Ottawa Theatre School , the show is symptomatic of another much deeper problem that begs a most uncomfortable question concerning actor training which I don’t even want to ask.  

I might add that Teri Loretto gave us an excellent production of Mamet’s Speed the Plow last year. But that was  Mamet,  there were two excellent actors in the cast and the set spoke a beautiful language of its own.  Such inspiration did not go unheeded and the result was very good indeed. Of course, it is not fair to compare those two because that was not  a student production  but we do know that  Loretto  is capable of excellent work. All one can assume is that there were  serious time constraints on the author and the director and given that this was a new and exceedingly ambitious play, with a fairly large cast of actors apparently unprepared for a project of such difficulty, it certainly was  unfair to everyone concerned.

False Assumptions continues at the Gladstone Until March 30. Call 613-233-4523

False Assumptions  By Lawrence Aronovitch

Directed by Teri Loretto-Valentik

Set and Costume design………….               Attila clemman

Lighting design…………………………John Solman

Sound design:………………………….Ryan Acheson

Cast

Marie Curie………………………………..Hannah Gibson-Fraser

Hypatia………………………………………..Karina Milech

Lovelace………………………………………Alexis Scott

Rosalind………………………………………Holly Griffith

Pierre……………………………………….. Nick Fournier

Grace & Jeanne………………………….Alison Rainer

Missy & Radium Girl……………………Alyssa Gosselin

Casimir, Paul & Radium Girl…………Dilys Ayafor

Zosia, Zorawska & Radium Girl…….Tifanni Kenny

A production of Plosive Theatre and the Ottawa Theatre School

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