Your assignment: Analyze and debate subatomic particles, ancient civilizations, the discovery of fire, the struggle between religion and science, and the unknown darkness lurking beyond the very limits of reality. One minor detail: You have only 60 minutes, which you must also spend running, screaming, doing pushups, crying, and literally bouncing off the walls. Got it? Then you’re ready for Soma Theater Ensemble’s production of Sierra Eckert’s Dust of Babylon, a fascinating and alarming meditation on human efforts to bend the universe to our will and the terrifying consequences of our hubris.
Dust of Babylon derives its plot from the wonder, fear, and mystery surrounding the Large Hadron Collider, a real multi-billion dollar research installation, wherein scientists intend to recreate the big bang on a small scale and study the primal forces at work. Nobody is completely, 100% sure what will happen once it is switched on; some fear a black hole or cataclysmic explosion will occur. From this uncertainty arises the central discussion and conflict between Newt, a skeptical journalist and Elektra, a brilliant scientist working on the Collider.
As the play begins, the newsman arrives to interview the intense researcher about the purpose and implications of the project. However, the calm scene quickly goes off the rails when Newt’s poorly hidden fears of the unknown bubble to the surface. Things really get weird when Prometheus, god of fire, enters the scene with a lesson for those mortals that would themselves attempt to play gods. What begins as a pleasant, rather routine interview quickly spirals into a nightmarish hurricane of cosmic anomalies, desperate prayers, tragic histories, and doomsday prophecies.
The three actors imbue their performances with a ferocious energy that will leave no audience member unshaken. As the fearful Newt, Mike Levin, who is also the director, is a marvel of howling, frantic madness, sprinting and flipping about the stage as his fear grows, eventually delivering an entire speech while standing on his head. In contrast, as Elektra, Nikita Purcell maintains an unsettling, laser-like focus on her goal of activating the Collider, creating a vision of dangerous obsession with progress at any cost. Finally, with his portrayal of Prometheus, Jai Chowdhry Beeman conjures a riveting amalgam of ancient mystic, drill sergeant, and German researcher (perhaps Einstein?).
Praise is due to Sierra Eckert for crafting such a unique premise and presenting the actors with well-layered characters and furious, surprising dialogue. Director Levin and movement coach Leslie Ptak Baker have combined their talents to great effect, bringing forth intense, free-roaming action that fills the small theater space and yanks the audience into the characters’ mad world. The result is a strange, fascinating spectacle that will leave an indelible mark on your psyche. At the very least, it made me wonder, “Wait, so are we sure we know what will actually happen when they switch that freaky machine on?” In my book, that’s a play well worth the price of admission.
See it iy you’re in the mood for a mind-bending exploration of humanity’s relentless push into the dark unknown, complete with screams, video montages, ladders, and plastic wrap. Also, you’re intrigued or concerned, or both, about the imminent activation of a giant magnetic tube where subatomic particles will smash each other apart at near-light speed.