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After Darwin
Explora Theater

Also see Brian's review of Trust

After Darwin
Neil Faulconbridge and
Harrison Moore Wirstrom

After Darwin by Timberlake Wertenbaker presents a play-within-a-play dramatizing struggle for survival—in nature and in human society. In the opening scene, set in 1865, Robert FitzRoy, age 60, rails at Charles Darwin, 56, admonishing him for his irreligious writings. He brandishes his Bible and a razor at Darwin and cries out in despair: "Forgive me, God, for what I have done, for what I am about to do—if you are there." (FitzRoy did cut his throat in 1865, and the historic play dramatizes his decline.) The next scene shifts back to 1831: young Darwin is applying to be naturalist on FitzRoy's voyage of the HMS Beagle. Despite Darwin's grandfather Josiah Wedgwood being an outspoken anti-slavery Whig, FitzRoy, a rigid fundamentalist Tory, hires him.

We discover that we are watching a rehearsal when director Millie calls out "Embrace" to the actors. Ian, an old stage actor down on his luck, needs the job playing FitzRoy to survive. Darwin's story fascinates Ian, but he doesn't like being cast as a loser, someone on the wrong side of history. Tom, who plays Darwin, admits that he has no interest in history, hasn't read Darwin, and cares only about furthering his acting career.

As FitzRoy, Neil Faulconbridge (recently seen as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Vortex) looks old enough to be the grandfather of Harrison Moore Wirstrom, a high school sophomore who plays Darwin. The actors' age difference works to emphasize the tension between FitzRoy, ship captain and mentor, and Darwin. Faulconbridge's Ian chastises apprentice actor Tom whose natural talent requires no craft. As FitzRoy, he lectures Darwin for writing flowery field notes, drawing imperfect nature sketches, and challenging fixed biblical positions on creation.

Wirstrom charms us as Darwin by bubbling with boyish delight at every discovery. He pulls specimens out of a knapsack and plops them on FitzRoy's table, only to have the captain explode at him for not dressing properly. As the amoral Tom, Wirstrom convinces us he has no qualms about accepting a trivial role in a film, even though it means abandoning the Darwin play—carelessly leaving director, playwright, and fellow actor in the lurch. He prefers the brutality of shoot-em-up action movies (he gleefully mimics gunshots) that might bring quick fame.

Wertenbaker has created Tom as a contemporary shadow Darwin acting out "survival of the fittest" to illustrate a facile Social Darwinism, which always favors history's winners, ignoring socially constructed advantages, such as race or gender, that create obstacles. Ian, the "dying breed" Shakespearean actor, trumps Tom's survival brutality by emailing a lie to Tom's film director that Tom is dying of AIDS, thus ruining his film career but guaranteeing that Tom will stay with the Darwin play. In the play, political and moral dilemmas might win more sympathy if presented with more subtlety. Not only is Ian washed up as an actor and Tom homosexual, but director Millie, a survivor, has lied her way into a theatre job to keep from being deported as an undocumented immigrant from Bulgaria. Only African-American playwright Lawrence carries his historic burdens lightly and appears to be morally uncompromised.

When the play seems doomed, Millie wails that she's going extinct because Eastern European directors are no longer in fashion. Emilyn Jones (a sign language interpreter for public schools, who has appeared in other Explora productions) skillfully brings Millie out of the shadows and into a grand scene of rage and terror as she tells the historic story of Turkish abuse and her own struggle for survival in which theater became her refuge.

David Cooper Jr. (seen recently in Mass Appeal at Aux Dog) creates a calm grounded playwright unshaken by the storms swirling around other characters. Wertenbaker has given him a "theater as salvation" lecture to edify and console all of us: "It is quite possible ... that human beings have come to the end of their evolution, but ... never to the end of our imagination. When I see a character on stage, I think, ah, where is he going? He's emerged from the tragic, is he a hybrid, a completely new form? And I never stop being excited by the human possibilities—that struggle for existence on this small space ..."

Award-winning playwright Wertenbaker, significant and influential in Britain, deserves to be performed more frequently for intelligent audiences in the United States. Many of her challenging multi-layered plays are based on historical and mythological tales. Her most famous play Our Country's Good, based on Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker, dramatizes the liberating power of theatre among newly arrived convicts exiled to Australia.

Explora Theatre has tackled challenging modern plays other than After Darwin (first produced in 1998 in London). In a second floor theatre space that barely seats fifty atop a science center near Albuquerque's Natural History Museum, Art Museum, and Old Town, it has recently produced Brecht's Galileo, Karel Capek's R.U.R. (introducing the word robot), David Mamet's The Water Engine, Rita Nachtmann's The Thread of Life (about Rosalind Franklin's role in discovering DNA), Lanford Wilson's Rain Dance, and Ira Hauptmann's Partition (about Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan).

According to director Kristen Leigh the theater is committed to doing plays that deal with issues in science, math and technology, as part of Explora's mission. They are "creating opportunities for inspirational discovery and the joy of lifelong learning through interactive experiences in science, technology and art. We want to connect to visitors' experiences and emotions and give them the opportunity to be transfixed."

In celebration of Darwin's 200th birthday, After Darwin is being presented at Explora Theater,1701 Mountain Road NW, Albuquerque, through September 3. Tickets are $5.50 for Explora members and $7.00 for non-members. Call 505-224-8341 for reservations. For more information, visit www.explora.us/en.


Photo: Amy Carr

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