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A CurtainUp Review
The Light Years

It's an incredible story of obsession, failure and the human price of progress. . .it's also a story about fatherhood and family.
— Director Oliver Butler about Steele MacKayee's largely forgotten Spectatorium project of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.
The Light Years
Graydon Peter Yosowitz & Aya Cash as Charlie and Ruth at the 1933 Fair (photo: Joan Marcus)
The multi-talented Steele MacKaye and his astonishing Spectatorium project for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair are largely forgotten. But thanks to the Debate Society's creative team — Hanna Box, Paul Thureen and Oliver Butler— not only the remarkable MacKaye is brought back to life and his Spectatorium Project is used to vividly dramatize the dreams (realized and dashed) that the hustle and bustle generated by World's Fairs.

The Light Years which is now having its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons' Main Stage, is one of the company's most technically complex productions. The edifice that MacKaye expects to become more famous than the Eiffel Tower will feature all sorts of technical marvels. But don't be put off by this talk about wind machines and the other technical wonders with which MacKaye hopes to advance the electrical age to new heights.

This is not a science lesson masquerading as a play but, true to the above quote from director Butler's program note, it's about a World's Fair's magical way of causing a burst of inventive energy, hopes for new and better lives — even if only for a little while.

Bos and Thureen's decision to time travel between the 1893 Fair at which MacKaye hoped to make history and the one forty years later was based on the fact that both occurred during major economic upheavals when people needed something to make them feel better times were possible.

The playwrights have created an engaging, loving married couple for each time frame. Their stories are cleverly linked into a double portrait of ordinary people embracing new things in dark times. Their stories have a lovely Americana flavor, but aren't too saccharine to overlook that as everyman-woman-child counterparts they also had to deal with dreams that go sour.

Of course, the World's Fairs that bookend these personal stories do also champion the larger spirit of invention — a spirit exemplified by men like Tesla and Edison and Steele MacKaye who expanded and enriched the lives of people he world over.

Butler has assembled a fine cast to navigate the 40-years apart worlds. Rocco Sisto makes a big, tasty meal of the only character based on an actual person (James Morrison Steele MacKaye (1842-1894). Aya Cash effectively doubles as Adeline the wife of MacKaye's chief electrician, Hillary (Erik Lochetefeld), and Ruth the wife of jingle writing musician Ken (Ken Barnett) and mother of delightful 10-year-old Charlie (Graydon Peter Yosowitz). She is the center of both the 1893 and 1933 full of joy and hope scenes. However, her fate, though quite different in both time periods, personifies the shadow of transience and disappointments that overhangs the magic of a World's Fair's hustle and bustle.

Laura Jellinek's set neatly accommodates the play's technical and more kitchen sink aspects. Michael Kass's costumes help to establish time and place. Russel H. Champa and Lee Kinney do wonderful work to enhance the technical wizardry that's very much part of the Debate team's carefully crafted play.

Butler not only keeps the actors fluidly moving back and forth in time but around the versatile basic set. He also makes good use of the aisles. While The Light Years covers a lot of ground, it would be even better if it could do so in about ten minutes less.

One of MacKaye's inventions for that fabulous Spectatorium, the Silent Unfolding Announcer for describing things in a play, is put to use throughout The Light Year's hour and forty minutes. This precursor to today's projected images with sophisticated digital apparatus was just one of the MacKaye's many theatrical devices. If this inventor of flame-proof curtains, folding theater seats and the "Nebulator" machine for creating clouds on stage were alive today maybe he'd come up with a "Cellulator" to automatically turn off all cell phones — even in a theater as big as his 1000-seat Spectatorium which, alas, was never completed.

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The Light Years by Hannah Bos
Directed and developed by Oliver Butler and made by The Debate Society
Cast: Cast: Aya Cash (Adeline and Ruth ), Brian Lee Huynh (Hong Sling), Erik Lochtefeld (Hillary), Rocco Sisto (Steele MacKaye)and Graydon Yosowitz (Charlie) Scenic design by Laura Jellinek
Costume design by Michael Krass
Lighting design by Russell H. Champa
Sound design by Lee Kinney
Original music by Daniel Kluger
Stage Manager: Ryan Gohsman
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
Playwrights Horizon Mainstage Theater
From 2/17/17; opening 3/13/17; closing 4/02/17
Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2:30 & 8PM and Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March 8th press preview

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The Light Years
The Light Years - a long forgotten real inventor and two invented families bring the magic of World's Fairs to vivid theatrical life . . . Read More