Fission

Also: Hellhound on My Trail.

Fission

Live Girls! Theater; ends Sun., April 3

At the opening of Molly Best Tinsley's play about "the Jewish mom of the atom bomb," physicist Lise Meitner is offered $20,000 by some fast-talking MGM studio wags in the 1940s for the movie rights to her life story. She's appalled, of course, since her significant contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission were, in her words, "a search for truth, twisted by the urge to kill" when bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The trouble with director Katjana Vadeboncoeur's production is that it sometimes seems like MGM won Meitner over after all, and we're watching their awkward, belabored attempt at portraying a woman as complex as her science.

Maybe, however, Tinsley wants her script to wink at us in just such a manner, to present the facts as though some hacks have got their hands on them and it's all Meitner can do to tell us her side of things. The show begins in cinematic fashion, with Meitner "empty-handed, alone, and perpetually cold" after eight years in exile from Germany, until the MGM visit inspires a pensive flashback into the events that led to her alienation while lab partner (and unrequited love) Otto Hahn received the 1946 Nobel Prize for a finding that was only partially his. Tinsley has to know this is the standard format for a fairly hokey Hollywood biopic—how else to explain the corn of moments like Albert Einstein sidling up next to Hahn and teasing, "I've got a hunch Fräulein Meitner is crazy about you"?

Whatever the intent of Tinsely's text, Vadeboncoeur's show isn't the one to fully deliver on its merits. This is a young production in every sense of the word: a new script, an unsophisticated presentation, and an ensemble who haven't lived much more than a couple of decades themselves. When program notes tell you that Meitner was born in 1878, it doesn't take her brilliance to compute that the heart of the play—Meitner's struggle to reconcile her life's passions with the impossibility of realizing them in Nazi Germany—takes place when she and most of her colleagues were in their 50s, a maturity that everyone in the cast has difficulty appropriating. Merlin Whitehawk's studly Einstein has a hopeless accent and the look of a genius more likely found on the WB network; ditto Daniel Christensen's very pretty but inconsequential Hahn.

However, there is something here— and someone. As Meitner, Michelle Lewis (so adroit as a twentysomething slacker in last season's [sic]) is as miscast as everyone else, but she's engaged in a way that draws you into her emotions. You don't buy her in a white lab coat rattling off lines about "homogenous beta radiation," yet you do follow her intense vulnerability—her urgent eyes register a sense of what Meitner most wants and a comprehension of what Meitner could never have. Lewis' physicist is a person believably torn apart by all the sacrifices women are forced to make to define their own happiness, and that, luckily, is the arena in which Tinsley is the most articulate and Vadeboncoeur the most expressive.

The production's nerviest relationship is not the lovesick missed connection between Meitner and Hahn, but between her and his long-suffering society wife, Edith (Erin Stewart), who comes to hate everything Otto stands for and sees in Meitner the chance for someone to say it out loud and actually be heard. If Stewart's performance is more eager than it is disciplined, she and Lewis do develop a rapport, and there's a memorable scene that finds the fairly hydrophobic Meitner and the fairly suicidal Mrs. Hahn saving one another from drowning. Though Vadeboncoeur pulls off some of Tinsley's other trenchant notions—particularly one in which Meitner hides behind a screen and explains fission, while Otto Hahn stands out in front, authoritatively lip-syncing her words—the evening has only the sight of Lewis determinedly treading water to suggest the mournful missed opportunities of both Meitner and the play Tinsley hoped to make about her. STEVE WIECKING

Hellhound on My Trail

Theater Schmeater; ends Sat., April 16

Denis Johnson's 1992 book, Jesus' Son, a cycle of loosely linked stories, altered the way we look at American literature. Wise, poetic, and cosmically downbeat, the book contained worlds of personal hurt transformed by Johnson's sharp intelligence into something explosive and visionary—a modern book of revelations. More recently, Johnson has taken up with a troupe of artists in San Francisco known as the Campo Santo Theatre Company, and the collaboration has produced a trilogy of plays depicting the adventures of the fictional Cassandra family, a dysfunctional clan if there ever was one.

Theater Schmeater's production of Hellhound, the first installment in this trilogy, introduces the key players: sister Marigold Cassandra (Kate Czajkowski), an agent for the Department of Agriculture; Jack Toast (Erik Hill), a fed investigating Marigold's alleged sexual misconduct in the "Kernwood Farms affair"; and Mark "Cass" Cassandra (Roy Stanton), the blackest in a family of black sheep. The play wastes no time dropping us right in the middle of the messy, mysterious aftermath of a botched DOA inquiry into the aforementioned farm's production of jam. The investigation, however, is merely secondary here, a device—almost a ruse—that allows Johnson to veer off on a wild Strangelovean riff about the absurdities of bureaucracy and the fritzed psychological warfare of familial, professional, and political relations.

The first act, in which a pill-popping Marigold is "interrogated" by May (Rebecca M. Davis) about her role in an erotic entanglement involving a female colleague and a jar of jam, sets the tone for everything that follows. This delightfully strange scene, full of spitfire repartee and a sort of frenzied existential brinksmanship, proves a comic tour de force, and Czajkowski and Davis play it to the hilt until this situational pressure-cooker explodes in a moment of awe-inspiring insanity. From here on out, the everyday rules of logic do not apply—this is a nightmare world, governed by ridiculous semantics and the desultory motives of characters adrift in a land of excess and waste. Johnson's usual concerns are on display: the pilgrim's progress of religious charlatans, the ethical inversions of greed and hypocrisy, the blind Darwinian drive for survival amid squalor, and the inherent violence of the West. In short, the American Apocalypse.

Director Rob West does a deft job wrestling down a sometimes difficult work. The pacing is superb, the action is sharp and nimble, Joe Cole's all-purpose set is elegant (though it would be nice to open those walls up to the side seats just a tad) and the performances are excellent. Each actor locates the essential humanity driving Johnson's bizarre characters, discovering in their roles that which compels each to do what they are powerless not to do. For, in the end, Hellhound is a meditation on fate—whether in the form of a Kafka-like bureaucracy, a chance encounter in a cafe, or a gun with one bullet missing and a pile of heroin sitting on a motel windowsill. As in Jesus' Son, the power of the play lies in Johnson's uncanny ability to wrest a disarming blend of comedy and tragedy from such absurd destinies, and to do so in such a way that we empathize with the fuckups who rage against them. RICHARD MORIN

 
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