Cassiopeia: Theater Review
Two unlikely seat mates find themselves discussing the cosmos on a plane flight in the Emilie Beck-directed play.
The oddly-named Quiet (Doug Tompos), a brilliant theoretical physicist afflicted with an autistic-like inability to read or relate to other people, scratches out breakthrough calculations to the hum of the airplane engine. His seatmate, Odetta (Angela Bullock), a middle-aged maid from the South laboring under the burden of her perceived homeliness, is a loquacious, white-knuckled first-time flier. In this rhapsodic dramatic piece by David Wiener (2011’s award-winning Extraordinary Chambers at the Geffen), receiving its world premiere production, the two characters interact clumsily with one another and more often address the audience directly, through the interlocution of The Voice (Pasean Wilson), a unitary chorus with the stature of a goddess interpreting, and perhaps orchestrating, the nature of the cosmos.
Quiet has lived the solitary life of an asocial prodigy, mentored from adolescence by an understanding professor who has apparently also exploited his inspired discoveries. He takes great solace in the comfort of mathematics and the search for order amidst the mysteries of universal forces. More quotidian, Odetta views the world from an opposite viewpoint, keenly observing in human behavior the cruelties of betrayal and the thwarted possibilities for affection. Their contrasting rhetoric creates startlingly beautiful juxtapositions of language, each expressing a poetry particular to themselves. Inevitably, they do not connect, but Odetta recognizes that indeed their lives have been intertwined, accepting the failure to communicate where Quiet never perceives their shared history and experience. When initially snubbed for small talk by Quiet, Odetta asks him sarcastically, “What do you think you’re doing, solving the secrets of the universe on that napkin?” – little realizing that yes, he believes he is.
Cassiopeia is not exactly a play in the way that an oratorio is not precisely an opera, but it is so beautifully sung, and the text so melodic, that its abstractions become palpable passages of ecstasy. In lesser hands, it might have lapsed into a labored pretension, yet director Emilie Beck and her players have such command of its cadences and rhythms, abetted by the textures fashioned by the exceptionally sensitive lighting of Jeremy Pivnick, subtle sound design of Jack Arky, and majestic set of Stephen Gifford, that the impact is indeed musical. Tompos and Bullock etch richly detailed characters each in their respective space, and Wilson, who has no character whatever, makes every gesture and inflection memorably allusive.
This show may not conform to everyone’s notion of theater, and others may find it obscure or difficult. A work of art that takes as its essential premise the duality of dichotomies such as reason versus emotion inevitably will lead to conclusions that mirror that assumption of opposed perceptions, and while that may lend a certain predictable quality to the piece’s ultimate development, this production makes each moment onstage both clear and alive.
Venue: The Theatre at Boston Court (Through Feb. 24)
Cast: Angela Bullock, Doug Tompos, Pasean Wilson
Director: Emilie Beck
Writer: David Wiener
Scenic Design: Stephen Gifford
Lighting Design: Jeremy Pivnick
Sound Design & Original Music: Jack Arky
Costume Design: E.B. Brooks