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A CurtainUp Review

by Les Gutman
Not getting a meta-allegorical hominem doesn't mean you are not smart.
---Susanna Speier

James Urbaniak
J. Urbaniak
(Photo: Andrew Kaen)
Rarely does a week go by anymore, or so it seems, that I am not prompted to marvel at the number of plays being produced with scientific and/or mathematical themes. This week, we add Calabi-Yau to the list. The title refers to a concept in "string theory," an exciting dimension of both physics and mathematics, knowledge of which I have managed to wake up each morning without, until now.

Does that mean I now understand it? No. From what I gather (and apologies are probably in order to the physicists and mathematicians of the world), whereas we once thought that the universe was composed of teeny tiny things called atoms, which are in turn made up of even smaller things like neutrons and electrons, or something called quarks that I can't explain at all, we now think that atoms are actually quite large things and that if we "dig deeper" we will discover that each atom is composed of sub-sub-sub- (...) microscopic strings that vibrate, producing energy (? I am stretching my knowledge here) that in turn (perhaps) produces matter. For the record, no one has actually seen any of this; there may be enough funding to produce a show about it but as yet not enough to build a machine capable of observing it.

Join me, however, in not needing to know anymore about this, because Calabi-Yau is a fanciful, fun and attractive examination of process, set, of all places, in the bowels of the New York City subway system. We are guided by a narrator/lecturer, dubbed Conductor (Michael Kraskin), who encourages us to join him in searching for increasingly smaller units of the universe, in the hope we will eventually reach the promised land of string. ("There is nothing more micro," we are told, "than a string".

A documentarian (Rob Grace) tumbles out of a video and onto the stage, stumbling around in subway tunnels where he is confronted by two wiseacre MTA workers (Pamela Karp and Tom Pearl) as he tries to gain an audience with a slightly mad scientist called Grandpa (James Urbaniak, splendid as ever) by getting past his gatekeeper, Lucy (Susanna Speier, also the playwright). (Karp, Pearl and Urbaniak appear only by way of the video screen; Ms. Speier is seen on both stage and screen.)

Considering that this is pretty heady stuff, more obtuse than anything I recall being asked to get my arms around, it's remarkable entertaining. It's also well done: some fine performances and neatly directed (onstage by Mr. Kraskin, on video by Tony Torn, the latter somewhat more satisfyingly). The show also incorporates some very nice and effective organ music (by Stephen Black) and vocals (by Hai Ting Chinn), composed by Stefan Weisman. There is another cast member mentioned but I can't swear I ever identified him. The character's name is One Dimensional Planck Length Superstring, portrayed by John S. Hall. Perhaps he was too small to see with the naked eye but I was nonetheless intrigued by his playbill bio, which indicates he is both the head of an entertainment law firm and the lead singer and lyricist of a group called King Missile, which is responsible for one of my favorite odes to the East Village of old, called "Detachable Penis".

For a non-scientist like me, Calabi-Yau remains a bit of an enigma, although I admit to a sense of awe at the efforts of these explorers of the intricacies of the universe. Perhaps its technicalities would resonate profusely for someone more inundated with the laws of physics, or, dare I suggest, for anyone under the influence of a mild hallucinogen. I wouldn't know. In any case, it's about as painless and pleasant a lesson in the intersection of theoretical physics and mathematics as anyone is likely to receive, and I commend it to the attention of all.

There is a well-regarded book (a Pulitzer nominee) on all of this called The Elegant Universe, written by Brian Greene, a professor at Columbia and consultant to this production. For anyone so inclined, further details can be found here.
by Susanna Speier
Live performance directed by Michael Kraskin, video directed by Tony Torn
with John S. Hall, Hai Ting Chinn, Tom Pearl, Pamela Karp, Susanna Speier and Rob Grace, James Urbaniak and Michael Kraskin
Lighting Design: James Marin
Sound Design: Douglas Heingartner
Costume Design: Susanna Speier
Original Music: Stefan Weisman
Organ Music played by Steven Black
Video Design: Benton Bainbridge and Owen Bush
Installations: Julianne Swartz
Cinematography: Bill Hopkins
Sound Engineering: Patrick Christensen
Power Point Design: Luke O'Malley
Running Time: 1 hour with no intermission
A production of Usonian
Here, 145 Sixth Avenue (Spring/Dominick)
Telephone (212) 647-0202
March 15 - April 7, 2002
FRI - SUN @7:30; $15
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 3/17/02 performance

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