Saturday, February 14, 2015

"The Artist & The Scientist" - Inventive and deeply moving

By Rob Hartmann
Photos by Jenny Anderson

The Artist & The Scientist is an inventive and deeply moving new musical currently running at CAP21. Bookwriter/lyricist Jenny Stafford and composer Brandon Anderson have together crafted a story which seeks to explore the inner drives which can both save us from an uncertain world, and trap us into familiar patterns.

Dan Kohler, Curtis Wiley, Jamilla Sabares-Klemm,
Christina DeCicco, James Penca, 
EJ Zimmerman
The core of the story is very simple: a painter (Jamila Sabares-Klemm) and an astronomer (James Penca) have fallen in love. When he proposes marriage, she hesitates. The story unspools in that moment of indecision. Both the painter and astronomer have an inner muse which at times comforts or criticizes them; his is Logic (Christina DeCicco), hers, Creativity (Curtis Wiley.) The pressure of the proposal moment acts to send all four spinning into scenes from significant episodes in the relationship — not only the relationship between the painter and the astronomer, but also the relationship each has with both Logic and Creativity.

I’ll stop to say that a synopsis cannot really capture the essence of this show. We’ve all the experience of seeing the sort of piece where actors play Abstract Concepts (“Behold, for I am Grief. I must weep, and dance, and weep again.” Audience checks watch, plans escape strategies.) Trust me, this is not that kind of piece — even with Time and Space as characters whirling through the plot like an interstellar Oberon and Titania. The Artist & The Scientist draws its characters sharply and specifically, taking familiar tropes (“She’s a free spirit! He’s tightly wound! But can they love?”) and digging into them to reveal painful-slash-hilarious truths about the way people collide as they try to understand one another. The show is smart, witty, funny, and deeply emotional — with great empathy for all its characters.

Jamila Sabares-Klemm,
James Penca
James Penca and Jamila Sabares-Klemm create fully three-dimensional characters whom you believe as a scientist and an artist, and as two people who would be drawn together. Sabares-Klemm neatly sidesteps all “eccentric artist” cliché, bringing great warmth and sensitivity to the role of a person in the grip of an all-consuming need to create. Penca finds the soul of the sort of man who always has an Interesting Fact of the Day to share: someone for whom order and method are ways of survival. (The Artist, in wide eyed wonder: “You know what else I like about him? If he says he’s going to be somewhere, or do something, he does it. Every time.”)

Christina DeCicco, as Logic, is decked out in a festival of geometric prints, including grid-patterned pants that could have been fashioned from the set of Tron (evocative costuming by Amy Sutton.) She inhabits the role with dry-as-bone comic timing. (In a moment of agitation: “I don’t think I can predict other people for you! … You never needed me to predict other people before! There weren’t any!”) DeCicco also endows the role with great kindness. In a quietly devastating second act moment, we see the Scientist as a kid, left alone when no one wants to play Legos with the NASA-shirt-wearing nerd. Logic appears, to offer him a lifeline: organization, order, calm. “This helps,” she says — DeCicco nailing the simple, strong truth of the moment.

Curtis Wiley, James Penca
Curtis Wiley plays Creativity as that charismatic mentor-teacher we’ve all had — the one who wonders why you would interrupt your work for such mundane tasks as eating and sleeping. Oh, and other people. Wiley is an actor of great nuance, skillful at portraying flickering, conflicting emotion. He gives Creativity’s voice a knife-edge sharpness and power, ably negotiating the high registers of his songs.

Brandon Anderson’s score is propelled by moody, rhythmic figures which percolate under plaintive pop-folk-tinged melodies. Anderson is an accomplished performer himself: he puts his cast through their paces, exploring every inch of their vocal ranges while weaving them into intricate, soaring harmonies. Music director Kristen Lee Rosenfeld ably leads the evening from the piano, bringing nuance and sensitivity to the score (along with Craig Magnano on guitar.)

Jenny Stafford’s book is an actor’s delight: in spare, taut scenes, she creates interesting, multi-layered individuals, wrestling with their own vulnerabilities as they cautiously fumble towards connection. By smartly keeping the text emotionally restrained, she allows the actors to find deep wells of feeling. She is also a lyricist in command of her craft — in one highlight, she deftly sketches out the agony of an art-house-cinema date (the kind of disastrous evening that you are pretty sure unfolds at the Angelika on a regular basis.)

The songs delve into some heady topics. When it seems that the pair are breaking up, the Scientist finds solace in the concept of eternalism. He sings:

There’s a theory on time called eternalism.
Great scientists often debate and discuss 
the third portion of time — the future. What’s coming for us.
If the future is constantly happening, 
then it’s happening. Right now.

So leave me, it’s fine.
I know there’s a “future us,” way down the line,
And they’re happy.
We’re saying we’re sorry and making up, somewhere.
You love me again and you’re holding me, somewhere.
We can’t believe you ever left me, somewhere.
I can’t wait till time takes us there.
Where we’re happy.

It’s a gorgeous moment, set beautifully to music, and Penca delivers it with a mixture of anger and shattered despair that is mesmerizing.

Dan Kohler
Time is a significant element in the piece — we move forward and backward in time, to childhood, to possible futures, to a minute ago, to millions of years ago. As the character of Time, Dan Kohler is like your slightly maniacal friend who convinces you to jump off the roof into the swimming pool. Space is a little more no-nonsense; EJ Zimmerman finds great texture in the role, from exasperation to remorse at having flung down the comet which wiped out the dinosaurs. (Keep an eye out for the tiny dinosaurs on the glowing Earth prop toward the beginning of the show.)

Lee Savage (scenic and prop design) creates a magical, theatrical space with a few simple gestures: a curtain of hanging bare bulbs, empty picture frames which glow with intense, flickering color, a simple painter’s scaffold. Greg Solomon (lighting design) takes us effortlessly from the human world on Earth to galactic space and inner darkness. Sound designer Jacob Subotnik’s work includes bringing the sounds of singing galaxies to the stage.

Director Jessi D. Hill keeps a sure hand on the narrative flow — never losing sight of the human story at the core of the story. The staging makes inventive use of the intimate space, moving the actors fluidly in and out from every corner.

Like all new works, The Artist & The Scientist will surely transform and evolve when it goes on to other productions. The beauty of the piece, here in its initial outing, is a certain glorious messiness. Too often, new-work developmental processes sand off all the interesting edges and crunch a piece down into predictable, easily digestible forms. What is clear about CAP21 (under the leadership of artistic directors Frank and Eliza Ventura) is that they are interested in stories which have unexpected angles, stories which assume that the audience is intelligent and curious, stories which have emotional truth and authenticity.

In The Artist & The Scientist, you will see yourself, and perhaps have a flash of insight into that wonderful, maddening person in your life — the one you love but just don’t fully understand. 

The Artist & The Scientist runs through February 28 at the CAP21 Black Box Theater, 18 West 18th Street. Show times are Wednesday-Saturday at 7 PM.

Tickets are $18 and are available through OvationTix or online at

CAP21 Theatre Company presents The Artist & The Scientist
Book and Lyrics by Jenny Stafford
Music by Brandon Anderson
Story by Jenny Stafford and Brandon Anderson
Directed by Jessi D. Hill
Musical direction by Kristen Lee Rosenfeld

Starring Christina DeCicco, Dan Kohler, James Penca, Jamila Sabares-Klemm, Curtis Wiley, and EJ Zimmerman. 

Scenic/props design by Lee Savage
Costume design by Amy Sutton
Lighting design by Greg Solomon
Sound design by Jacob Subotnik
Assistant lighting designer: Nathan Avakian
Stage manager: Cate DiGirolamo
Casting director: Geoff Josselson
Production manager: Becca Doyle

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