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Luminescence Dating

We are all sifting through the rubble to find a little piece of ourselves. Fragments that have been lost suddenly re-emerge, burnished by time.
--- Victor
 John Wojda & Betsy Aidem
John Wojda & Betsy Aidem
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Since 1998 the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation have collaborated on bringing scientific subjectes to the stage. The main event of these annual First Light Festivals is an especially commissioned full-length play. These commissioned works have explored a range of fascinating subjects in a variety of settings:
The Louis Slotin Sonata focused on the risks faced by researchers was dramatized in a fatal accident during the development of the atom bomb. The political situations scientists often find themselves in was at the heart of Tooth and Claw in which a director of the Galapagos based Charles Darwin Research Station was caught up in a tense conflict between rebellious fishermen who needed the harvest from to sea to feed their families and the Ecuadorian government which banned harvesting sea cucumbers from the protected waters. Tesla's Letters introduced audiences to a little known contributor to the story of electricity while The Secret Order provided a backstage look at the often Machiavellian practices of the medical research community. In String Fever the story of a once aspiring first violinist in a symphony orchestra coils itself around the concept about matter being the sum of microscopic strings.
The latest contribution to this worthy festival, Luminescence Dating, takes us into the archeologist's world. Written by Carly Perloff, the artistic director of San Francisco's prestigious American Conservatory Theatre, and directed by Will Pomerantz, this new play lives up to its billing as a romantic comedy about history, art and the timelessness of love and loss.

All but one of the four actors who comprise the cast are archeologists and teachers in various disciplines at a prestigious American univerity which makes for much discussion and some clashes pertaining to their particular passions. Angela's (Betsy Aidem) quest for a lost statue of the goddess Aphrodite borders on obsession and serves as a crisis of sorts since she's running out of grant money and time to finish a book under contract about her elusive holy grail. On a more personal note, Angela is still reeling from her one brief detour into flesh and blood love during a summer dig in Cyprus. The affair with Nigel (John Wojda), a British archeologist who specializes in military history, filled her with joy while it lasted but ended disappointingly when he up and disappeared abruptly ditched her without explanation -- leaving her quite literally in a ditch since she had a broken foot and the romance bloomed when Nigel began carrying her down to and out of the ditch they'd been digging in.

When Nigel returns as suddenly as he'd disappeared, Angela's still unhealed heart (Angela's last name is Hart -- nice metaphoric touch, no?) erupts along with her frustration about her dead-ended project.

Since everything is played out on a single set (evoked with admirable authenticity by Troy C. Hourie), it falls to the actors to sandwich details about the Angela/Nigel romance into their discussions about their projects, and arguments. Add the romantic travails of Victor (Ato Essandoh), the flamboyant young gay man and classicist who rounds out the archeological trio, and you get an idea that this is quite a mouthful of a play requiring the actors to deliver large chunks of dialogue and introduce some sense of action into that confining basement.

Ms. Perloff has done her best to vary the many interesting things said with monologues in the form of classroom lectures interspersed into the basement discussions. She's also created a fantasy figure who starts out realistically enough as the charwoman but quickly turns into a wise and witty Aphrodite (Judith Roberts) -- not the Aphrodite Angela has been hunting for, but the Aphrodite she needs to win the real holy grail -- a happy end for her aborted love affair. Mr. Pomerantz downplays the talking heads feeling by keeping the actors moving around the room. Ato Essandoh exuberant and amusing Victor and Judith Roberts' sly Aphrodite have the easiest time in terms of enlivening the lengthy discussions, but all four actors handle the wordy format quite well.

The title is best explained by one of the lectures interspersed as audience addressing monologues throughout the play-- in this case the lecturer is Angela who grabs her students' attention by announcing that her lecture is about dating and then moves on to explain an archeological paralell.
" . . .Thermoluminescence. A simple idea with profound consequences. If you capture the intense shots of radiation the earth gives off, you can figure out how much time has elapsed since the last heating of whatever clay object has been buried. Like the dating of a dead love affair. Locked within the soil are the secrets of that heat."
The many blackouts give a somewhat frustrating cinematic feel to the production -- frustrating because they make one wish that this might indeed be a movie or teleplay with flashbacks instead of blackouts to release us from that confining playing area and actually see how Angela broke her foot, observe the love scenes (including Victor's affair) and the private Greek tragedy that caused Nigel to abandon Angela. But then, I doubt that a screenplay could accommodate that fantastical and oh so wise about love one-woman chorus.

For details about other First Light Festival events check the EST web site: www.ensemble studio

String Fever
Tooth and Claw
The Secret Order
Louis Slotin Sonata
Moving Bodies
Tesla's Letters
CurtainUp's Science Play Page

Luminescence Dating
Written by Carey Perloff
Directed by Will Pomerantz
Cast: Betsy Aidem, Ato Essandoh, Judith Roberts and John Wojda
Set Design: Troy C. Hourie
Costume Design: Devon Painter
Lighting Design: Gregg MacPherson
Sound & Original Music: Lindsay Jones
Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission.
Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project at EST, 549 W. 52nd St., 212-352-3101
From 4/18/05 to 5/15/05 ; opening 4/21/05
Tues to Sundays 8pm, Saturdays & Sundays @ 3pm
Tickets: $35
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 19th press performance
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