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Einstein's Dreams at Burning Coal Theater

When dreams fade: A remake doesn't favor Einstein's Dreams


Time out of mind: Cliff Campbell and Rosa Wallace in Einstein's Dreams - PHOTO BY CHRIS MCMULLAN

Some people keep dream diaries. Myself, I keep theater and dance reviews. They have more in common than you might at first think.

Each attempts to record and interpret evanescence—decidedly short-lived, never-to-be-exactly-repeated phenomena. Each carefully analyzes improbable (and, more than occasionally, bewildering) signals for the presence of meaning. And despite—or, perhaps, because of—their best efforts, each takes on that faint tinge of the surreal sometimes associated with foreign correspondence.

I have before me the notes I took and the News & Observer review I wrote for Burning Coal Theatre's first production of Einstein's Dreams in November 1998. Celebrating the company's 10th season, Burning Coal has revived the show, in Leggett Theater at Peace College, through Dec. 17. The words on the page tell but a part of the story—a point that, as it happens, another show from last week, Ride Again Productions' The Christmas Letters, has at its heart.

The review doesn't disclose the certain stillness, that edge-of-the-chair feeling we had at its openingthe uncanny sense, which we've had on more than one occasion with Burning Coal, that we were witnessing a step into the future of regional performance, and therefore a step into the totally unknown.

The words can't entirely relate Morag Charlton's elegant set design of suspended and earthbound objects, a shadow box whose elements constituted a rebus taken directly from the subconscious, or the gravitas of Thomas Limbert's original sound score, which echoed Philip Glass and Gustav Mahler at key points. They don't completely impart the singular risk—or the success—of Rebecca Holderness' fusing of direction, unconventional stage movement and choreography, on an exceptional cast whose number included Ana Sferruzza, Michele Vazquez, Bob Barr, Emily Ranii and a haunted Mark Filiaci. They don't tell the degree to which we were all pulled into a waking dream—and an impassioned enquiry into the properties of human bodies as they fall in and out of time, space and relationships.

Einstein's Dreams

Burning Coal Theatre
Leggett Theater, Peace College

In particular, the words on that distant page don't indicate the hope that Einstein's Dreams gave us for the future of new, strikingly original theater in this region.

I must remember all of these qualities for a particular reason. For the most, they are either absent or greatly attenuated in the current restaging of Einstein's Dreams. Before we go any further, though, this caveat: We're told that relativity challenges the perspective of those traveling near the speed of light. Ironically enough, this show's relativity, so to speak, to the 1998 world premiere challenges mine.

In all likelihood, the less you know about the first show, the better this one is going to look. After all, under Holderness' direction, Cliff Campbell makes his eminently distracted Einstein a man all but under siege by the sleeping and waking notions that chase him. And no harm can surely come when masterful actor Quinn Hawkesworth ushers us into the speculative worlds of the opening sequences—worlds where time is circular, or folds upon itself like origami. David Coulter acquits himself well as Besso, Einstein's less than brilliant friend, while Jim Sullivan almost seems to channel Tom Wolfe and Gabrieal Griego gives painter Ana what she can in their abbreviated moments on stage.

But. The original venue—the space known now as Kennedy Theater, before its windows were closed, its walls were painted black and its acoustics dampened by black draping—was large enough to let Holderness and visual artist Morag Charlton both stretch out and explore unconventional, multi-story set design and theatrical choreography, in a room as bright and airy as Alan Lightman's text.

With all due respect, Leggett Theater is a shoebox by comparison. Early on, this cast of 14 seems crammed on stage, particularly when they have to carefully step across a maze of 12 stools and chairs that have been scattered across it. So much for Holderness' original choreography.

The mysteries expand. Why—particularly when Charlton's name is still featured on the company roster—was Matthew Adelson's workmanlike set design substituted for her clearly superior original visions? Chris Guse's subtle, ambient pre-show sound score of voices echoing down the halls of time fully earned the audience's applause before the first line—but the comparatively low-grade electronic score that followed (and a tasteless dance music curtain call) left us wondering why Limbert's original score had been jettisoned. It would be a tall order for any actor to follow Bob Barr's initial invocation for the end of time. But John Moletress, who elsewhere has been allowed to tinge yet another character—Einstein's son, Eduard—with sexual melodrama, isn't up to it.

For all its strengths, Kip Erante Chang's original adaptation still seemed the first act of a larger work. With much less magic now onstage, the script's seams show in a way they didn't once; it doesn't seem as much finished as abandoned in mid-thought—like the half-built bridge Lightman evokes at one point in the text.

That is tragic. Once, Einstein's Dreams pointed toward the future of performance, our future. Now, the work points mainly to a glory unfortunately in its past.


Tuesdays with Morrie, Playmakers Rep—To those who've awaited an arch riposte to Mitch Albom's best-selling book, two words: So sorry. Actually, here's three more: Go see it. Joan Darling's discerning direction plays this one the only way—straight from the heart—while somehow avoiding the mawkish and over-sentimental. Greg Mullavey's more than up for the gig as Morrie Schwartz, the terminally ill Brandeis sociology professor who reminded millions of their finite window of opportunity to be human. While Estes Tarver starts off cool (and too quiet), he ultimately warms. You will too. Bring Kleenex. (Through Dec. 10).

1/2 The Christmas Letters, Ride Again Productions—To that ancient theatrical prescription "Show, don't tell," we add the following update: "Show, don't sing." Karen Pell, Tom House and Tommy Goldsmith's songs arguably do too much of the heavy lifting here, downloading conspicuous amounts of exposition in lyrics that relate—but don't fully explore or stage—a number of crucial plot twists. Actors Katherine Simonsen, Gigi DeLizza and Andrea Powell effectively portray the women of a family's three different generations, and imaginative director Paul Ferguson's effectively steps us through a series of mobile picture frames into different times and places. But the brevity of scenes, a jarring segue between a broken Vietnam vet's last days to a suddenly perky finale, and melodies that seem too much the same mark a work clearly still in development. Keep working. (Through Dec. 10.)

Email Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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