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STAGE REVIEW

'Great Men' Dabbles in the Weird Science of Love

April 02, 1998|JANA J. MONJI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What will men do for love or the lack of it? Glen Berger's "Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22" combines sex and science in the debauched social setting of 18th century Paris for some thoroughly warped answers.

Under the direction of Jillian Armenante, this Circle X Theatre production at the Lost Studio Theatre has a wicked sense of the absurd as two scientists find a small measure of fame in their lifetimes, though history eventually forgets them.

Desperately in love with the married Gabrielle du Chatelet (Alice Dodd) and trying to eclipse her other lover, the unseen Voltaire, Jacques du Vaucanson (Matthew Allen Bretz) strives to win a prize in a scientific competition by creating a mechanical duck that eats and eliminates. His eyes feverish, his hair stringy and his bladder painfully passing kidney stones, Vaucanson obsesses on the nature of feathers and ducks, lamenting that "everywhere I turn, unexpected impediments." All this maniacal suffering for the first anatomically correct automaton?

In the second act, it's several years later. The French Revolution is in full swing and the reign of the guillotine has begun. Vaucanson and his fellow French scientists are in hiding. Vaucanson's colleague, Lazarro Spallanzani (Jim Anzide), is sleeping in a bathtub surrounded by 29 frogs. Between vomiting and arguing with his loyal but complaining spinster housekeeper (Melanie van Betten), the Italian Spallanzani attempts to discover the exact mechanisms of frog reproduction. How that relates to green taffeta is a hilarious theory that only these two lonely, sexually repressed souls can dignify.

Dodd is luminous as a sort of science muse who thrives on giving great men sexual patronage. Bretz is wonderfully demented as a brilliant man with a misguidedly trivial goal. Contrasting the cool, courtly love of Bretz's Vaucanson and Dodd's Chatelet is the comically childish and begrudgingly affectionate bickering between Anzide's master and Van Betten's housekeeper.

Berger lets us know the fates of both the men and their theories as history treats them unkindly, eventually relegating them to obscurity. He throws in tragedy--both comical and poignant, and a transvestite. Somehow, it all works.

The sparsely appointed set by Gary Smoot is fittingly filled with the gadgetry of balances and counterweights--some nominally disguised with golden angels. Feathers adorn the window frames that define Vaucanson's room, and lights replace the mattress of Chatelet's bed. Spallanzani's frogs are rigged to periodically leap, and each visitor to his chamber must pass a hallway of frogs.

Costume designer M.E. Dunn gives a period feel without the bulk of voluminous fabric. This especially adds to the ethereality of Dodd's Chatelet. Dan Weingarten's otherworldly lighting is at times slyly funny or unexpected.

Berger's tale is told with wit and played with charm, leaving us bemused at the exquisite wisdom and design of nature and the apparent randomness of events.

BE THERE

"Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22," Lost Studio Theatre, 130 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m. (pay what you can). Ends April 26. $15 at evening performances. (213) 969-9239. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

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