By Joe Ferguson
I would love to love the theater. My problem is I rarely relate to the subject matter. Even in an art-obsessed city like San Francisco, most of what is available are over-blown Broadway exports that play to the tourists, or historical pieces that seem like live performances of Masterpiece Theatre. That was not the case last month when I saw two works by chemist, inventor, and writer Carl Djerassi at San Francisco's Z Space theater.
Carl Djerassi made history as one of the inventors of the birth control pill. Aside from his groundbreaking career in the sciences, he is also a philanthropist of the arts. Djerassi amassed a world-renowned art collection by Paul Klee and later established a resident artists’ program in the lush, green hills of Woodside, California. At 75 he took up writing full time and has written 20 books that have been translated into two dozen languages.
In his later years his passion became writing plays. Djerassi’s plays are centered on the ideas of science and the workings of professional scientific communities. He adamantly refuses to dumb down his works, and has coined the description science-in-theatre. To illustrate what he means, he compares science fiction with science-in-fiction. On his website, he states that in science-in-fiction “all the science and behavior of scientists described in it is impeccably accurate or at least plausible…if such a tale is presented on the stage rather than on the printed page, we are dealing with science-in-theatre.”
Ego and Insufficiency are two science-in-theatre performances that were staged in San Francisco in October.
Ego is about a famous writer obsessed with his reputation who fakes his death in order to read his obituaries. He starts life anew writing under a pseudonym. His psychiatrist knows what is going on, but because of patient confidentiality, he cannot tell anyone--not even the writer's wife, who’s soon on his trail anyway. The play is Freudian in theme, with the three characters representing the id, ego, and superego.
Insufficiency is known as one of Djerassi’s hard science plays. A Polish chemist who specializes in Bubbleology--yes, this is a real field--has been laboring away at an American university and is determined to secure tenure despite the rivalry of his fellow academicians. The rivalry gets out of hand when he gives two colleagues who are blocking his appointment some experimental champagne, which mysteriously kills them. The play proceeds as a court case that seeks to determine if the deaths were an accident or murder.
Both plays were well-written, engaging, and cerebral. The actors and team at Z Space gave it their all presenting performances that were authentic and convincing. Z Space constructed a unique theater area with seating on three sides, providing the audience with greater intimacy to the performances. Dr. Djerassi was present both evenings for an after-show discussion and book signing.
If you want to know more about Dr. Djerassi’s ideas on the theater, you might want to pick up his book Chemistry in Theatre. In the book he makes his case for reading plays, not just watching them, which gives one time to reflect on the events and language. He also believes the theater can be used as a pedagogical tool in science instruction. The book contains a lengthy introduction, the complete manuscripts for Insufficiency, and the manuscript for one of his other plays, Phallacy.
As for me, I reveled in the high concepts, familiar professional terrain, and captivating drama. For those two nights, I did love the theater.