nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 9, 2009
The apparent paradox underlying the technology of the atomic bomb is that by breaking something very small into something even smaller, immense power is released. Trinity 5:29 operates along similar lines: in 40 compact, taut minutes, the most enormous and fundamental themes are explored and distilled. This extraordinary and intense new play from Axis Company proves to be both as beautiful and as explosive as the remarkable gallery of tiny photographs of mushroom clouds that adorns the theatre lobby.
Trinity 5:29 takes its title from the name of the first atomic bomb, the one that was detonated on July 16, 1945 at 5:29am at Los Alamos, New Mexico in a successful test of the device that was eventually used two more times at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The play posits a signpost in contemporary history: a dividing line between what came before and a forever-changed thereafter. If Dr. Frankenstein had lived and his experiment had been a success, the world would have cataclysmically and irrevocably been altered. The experiment conducted by J. Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues in the Manhattan Project had the same effect.
"Won't everybody want one?" Oppenheimer asks President Truman. "If it works?"
There, in a nutshell, is the horrible and untenable nature of what's about to be released from this unprecedentedly lethal Pandora's box. Trinity 5:29 is about many things, but for me one of its main ideas is that time—and its companion, progress—only move forward. We can't unknow once we know. So the questions we ask must be asked carefully.
Trinity 5:29 is a work of theatre that needs to be experienced, to get under the skin of its audience members. Some of its aspects are very much of a piece with Axis Company's house style: the stylized dialogue and its delivery, the unforgettable stage pictures, the astonishing elaborate and detailed design, the dense layering and probing of thoughts and concepts. I was startled that this play about technology has very few high-tech trappings of its own: there's a magnificent soundscape designed by Steve Fontaine, but no video or multimedia to speak of. The set (by Kyle Chepulis) is composed of a huge metal edifice like steel monkey bars on one side of the stage and a vast open crate that looks like a stage magician's trick on the other. The eponymous object, whose name is never uttered and whose nature is never even vaguely explained or alluded to in the script, is said to reside within this crate. The characters climb in and out of it over and over again, for inside it is the future.
These characters, I need to tell you, are the physicist Oppenheimer; Harry S Truman, who made the decision to use the bomb to end World War II (he reminds us more than once in the play that the buck stops with him); General Leslie Groves, in charge of the operation at Los Alamos; and Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer's mistress. Edgar Oliver (Oppenheimer), Brian Barnhart (Truman), Marc Palmieri (Groves), and Britt Genelin (Tatlock)—Axis regulars all—embody their characters and also comment on them without a hint of postmodern irony or self-reference. David Zeffren's lighting and Elisa Santiago's costumes complete the physical world of the play with felicity.
There's a kind of throughline in Trinity 5:29, but what's most evident throughout the play is the urgency, tension, anxiety, and profound disturbance that Oppenheimer and occasionally the others feel as time marches relentlessly toward the bomb's detonation. Director Randy Sharp and her collaborators let us look backward and forward on this pivotal moment simultaneously. Was there a place where this could have been halted? Or is it always true that, once the unthinkable has finally been thought, there's no turning back or away?