by Leta Tremblay · August 18, 2014
According to the press release, The Sun Experiment’s “characters’ romantic pursuits … speak to the universal physics of longing.” In fact, the opening scene introduces philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (Ben Chase) demonstrating to his compatriots that as the Earth and Sun each rotate on their axis and the Earth orbits the Sun, both celestial bodies forever long for each other. So begins playwright Catherine Yu’s “spinning, provocative exploration of desire.”
Yu’s play mingles three narratives across time; that of Ludwig and his illicit lover Patrick (Lauren Currie Lewis) at Cambridge at the turn of the 20th century, the struggling marriage of a contemporary American college professor and his wife, and a sampling of the characters from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The three principal performers, Chase, Lewis, and Julia Watt do an admirable job balancing the believability of their characters in each of these distinct yet overlapping stories, blurring the lines between what is real and what is fantasy.
Director Elena Heyman, Artistic Director of the producing organization HelikonRep, creates a poetic and dreamlike atmosphere for the play to dwell in by utilizing an ensemble of young women dressed in white slips and a simple yet effective scenic design by Paul Tate dePoo III of four chairs and fabric. The ensemble members flit across the stage between scenes adjusting furniture and dressing or undressing the characters in signifying costume elements for each storyline. Sometimes they engage in the action as silent observers, masked figures, or, in the Illyria of Twelfth Night, elements of the scenery itself.
It’s difficult to say where the Sun, or center, of the story resides in The Sun Experiment. Is it with Watt’s Clara, the contemporary wife who seems to be lost in a state of depression after her mother’s death and longs for her past as an actor in Twelfth Night? One could argue yes as she is the only character who retains her name across time (she appears as Lady Clara in Illyria rather than Olivia). She is also placed as the focal point of Ludwig’s opening demonstration with himself orbiting around her and Patrick observing from the outside, a dynamic that is repeated in the contemporary story in which student Laurel (Lewis) remains outside of Clara’s marriage to Professor Nick.
Yet it is Lewis’s gender bending portrayals, perhaps inspired by her Twelfth Night role as Viola/Cesario that I found to be the most dynamic. Lewis convincingly inhabits both a closeted gay Englishman living in 1912 and a modern day female college student both romantically and intellectually drawn to Chase’s period appropriate counterpart characters. She seamlessly transitions from one role to the other to the next with more ease and surety than Viola herself ever exhibits.
All in all, I enjoyed myself immensely at The Sun Experiment. Yu, Heyman, and their team have created a full and multi-layered investigation of some very large themes and questions. It is clear that there is a great amount of heat, thoughtfulness, and beauty within the story that unfolds onstage. My hope is that they will continue to reach for all that they long for and desire.