The Most Radiant Beauty / Scenes from a Misunderstanding
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 4, 2009
Don't overlook the word "Ideas" in the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas; one of the hallmarks of this and every other festival I've ever seen produced by Untitled Theater Co. #61 is an emphasis on theatre as a place for free and unfettered intellectual exchange—a place not just to be entertained but also to be enlarged and enlightened. The double bill of The Most Radiant Beauty (written and performed by Tanya Khordoc and Barry Weil) and Scenes from a Misunderstanding (written by Carey Harrison and directed by Henry Akona) exemplifies this concept beautifully.
Both of these are short pieces (each is less than half an hour) and both are charming and fun to watch. But at the core of each is an exploration of some chunks of knowledge. The artists take the audience on journeys that are insightful and invigorating as well as enjoyable.
The Most Radiant Beauty is billed as "an Einsteinian collage in found text." Khordoc and Weil have created a toy theater adventure that takes audiences through the words and thoughts of Albert Einstein and other brilliant people (Galileo, Copernicus, Oppenheimer, Newton, and Curie, to name just five). Stories from the Bible (of creation, Cain and Abel) are interspersed with quotations from these various scientists, who ponder the nature of what's knowable and the awesome responsibilities of dabbling with elements of nature (radium, the atom) that could well destroy the world as we know it. There's no real narrative to speak of, just a stream-of-consciousness stroll through Big Ideas, with puppets, lightboxes, lightbulbs, shadow figures, and more as our guides. Khordoc and Weil translate their own sense of wonder beautifully, and help us see and hear familiar concepts anew as a result.
Scenes from a Misunderstanding starts off as an epistolary play in which Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung trade increasingly piqued missives about their shared patient "Anna." Freud notes that Jung has taken four weeks to respond to one of his letters; Jung replies that it was Freud who failed to mail the letter for four weeks, not Jung who failed to open it. Soon each is psychoanalyzing the other's motives.
But Carey Harrison's script is more than just a high concept comedy, as later scenes (in which the two meet, in lederhosen—you have to see it) bear out. The philosophies of both of these great thinkers are contrasted and a path toward compromise and tolerance is charted. Henry Akona's staging is light, deft, and appropriate, and the performances of Mick O'Brien as Jung, Eric Oleson as Freud, and Kris Lundberg as both of their maids are delightful.
I enjoyed both of the excursions of the mind and spirit that The Most Radiant Beauty and Scenes from a Misunderstanding proffer. This is perfect festival fare, short and savory.