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.
Skip it if you’re up for some light comedy on a night out with your sweetheart.
Dust of Babylon
by Sierra Eckert
Directed by Mike Levin
Produced by Soma Theatre Ensemble
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Dust held my interest at the start of the show. Then it started to drag. This show needs serious editing or rewriting. Fringe shows are to show something unique and creative. This was unique and became a literal “mess” at the end. I didn’t like it and would not recommend it.
Michael B says
Okay, maybe I should have paid more attention in science class. Or, maybe I was still wondering what happened to the actress in the last play who passed out mid-show. But Dust of Babylon was just a big mess. The premise was fascinating- what will happen when scientists try to recreate “The Big Bang”. Throw Prometheus, god of fire, into the mix, and you might be in for some heady clashes. But what you get here is tossed silver dominoes, lots of heavy-duty plastic rolls, random techno-noise, and actors who sometimes flail, sometimes do 80’s choreography, and much of the time scream and cry. Maybe this is what will actually happen when the Large Hadron Collider finally works. But, for my taste, it was disconnected, random, and somewhat arbitrary (why should Prometheus quote R.E.M.?) Where was the focus? What was the point? (I need to qualify this statement by telling you that I don’t need a “point” to enjoy a performance. I loved “The Lost Ones” and “4.48 Psychosis”. What I do look for is something to hold the experience together as a unified performance.) The actors were committed to the work, but their skills varied greatly. The weak link, acting-wise, was Jai Chowdhry Beeman, whose Prometheus, which should have been the central figure of the piece and the catalyst for the action, was uncomfortable to watch. His movements were stilted and mechanical. His speeches were mumbled and too fast to follow. Much of what he did seemed arbitrary and self-conscious. It was clear that the playwright, Sierra Eckert, had something in mind. I’m just not sure what that something was.