nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
August 12, 2007
The sixth show I saw in this year's FringeNYC inspired by real-life events, Theremin by far tells the most outlandish tale—outlandish to the point of unbelievability. In fact, I was so sure that I had caught its creators in some factual errors that before writing this review, I Wikipedia'd its main characters. Much to my surprise, creators Duke Doyle and Ben Lewis of Blue Cake Theater Company have remained faithful to a good deal of the existing factual record on the lives of the inventor Léon Theremin (played by Doyle, who bears an eerie physical resemblance to the actual man), his protégé Clara Rockmore (Elizabeth Palin), and Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson (played by Lewis). But beyond historical accuracy, they have also found an appropriately fractured way to relate this bizarre tale of scientific and musical genius, Cold War intrigue, and the slippery ways of memory and hero worship.
Theremin's eponymous electronic instrument creates the spooky, glissando-like sound we've come to associate with 1950s horror and sci-fi movies. But during the '30s, while living in New York, his invention was featured in programs of music from the European classical tradition, and many serious contemporary composers were interested in its potential to create previously unattainable sonic effects. The musician plays the theremin by breaking the magnetic force field that surrounds it with his or her hand, never actually touching it. Intervals and volume are adjusted according to positioning of the hands, and it takes a performer with nearly perfect pitch to draw recognizable music out of the device. By general consensus, its greatest virtuoso was Rockmore, who had been trained in the violin at the St. Petersburg Conservatory (which seems impossible given her age at the time she met Theremin, until I discovered on the Internet that she was only five years old when she was accepted into the prestigious academy), and whom the play posits as the great love of Theremin's life.
Herein lies the problem with Doyle and Lewis's script: in their eagerness to mirror the craziness of Theremin's life with a nonlinear, encapsulated storytelling style, they skip over several significant facts that would enrich and/or clarify the events they are relating. A simple explanation in the script would have cleared up the matter of Rockmore's age (which distracted me for the entire piece), and while it's completely plausible to imagine a romantic liaison between Theremin and Rockmore, it seems like major omissions to not mention that in actuality he married an African American ballerina (a shocking act at the time) or that Rockmore played an active role in improving the instrument by suggesting changes to its structural design, which Theremin incorporated.
The play is narrated by Brian Wilson, a theremin devotee who unreliably insists on creating parallels between Theremin's story and his own infamous narrative of misunderstood genius, insanity, and familial betrayal. But Theremin the man keeps evading easy categorization: a venture capitalist who later worked for the Stalinist KGB; a passionate artist who invented the world's first electronic eavesdropping device; a man rumored to have been executed by the Soviet Union at the age of 42 who lived to see its collapse and died at the age of 97. Spending an hour and a half with his story as related by Blue Cake is certainly a diverting reminder of the many ways in which the facts are often stranger than any fictions we can devise from them.