Art & Culture
Two Plays Examining the Human Heart at Studio and GALA Theatres
Published: February 15th, 2017
By William G. Schulz
Local theater is offering two plays that explore human behavior and society as only thespians can: they hold a mirror to both our best intentions and worst instincts. And despite the searing reflections, both Studio Theatre’s The Hard Problem and GALA Hispanic Theatre’s Yo también hablo de la rosa (I Too Speak of the Rose) deliver oftentimes humorous, but always thought-provoking, not-to-be missed entertainment.
The Hard Problem, by British playwright Tom Stoppard, returns to the author’s fascination with science, this time through an exploration of consciousness — and the unconscionable, notably the immense greed behind the 2008 financial crisis that toppled world financial markets. Stoppard reminds us of the fragile reed upon which we rest “certainties” of human behavior.
The play begins with a rehash of “the prisoner’s dilemma” — briefly, a problem from 1950s game theory that shows why two completely “rational” people might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so.
I was a little worried at this early point in the show that the play would be a dull recitation of well-known philosophical conundrums. But this is not the case.
Stoppard’s protagonist Hilary, as portrayed by Tessa Klein, is a bright young psychology researcher with a newly minted doctoral degree — and very rose-colored glasses. Rather than pursue a career in academe, she opts for the prestigious Krohl Institute, a neuroscience research center founded by billionaire hedge funder, Jerry Krohl (David Andrew Macdonald).
Seduced by the illusions of reductionist scientific research, Hilary establishes a body of scientific work that takes her far from her humble beginnings and early, difficult choices in life. But those choices and their consequences return to haunt her. Worse, Hilary finds herself duped by the kind of inexplicable human behavior that upends her view of a rational universe, one that she believes can be tamed and understood.
Studio’s ingenious sets give us a Krohl Institute that at once reminded me of both Trump Tower and a Supermax prison. It is a stunning visual feat that depicts the vanity and selfishness of a person like Jerry Krohl within the high walls of cruelty and false understanding of human nature that the worst of psychological research has dished up occasionally over the last 100 or so years.
Stoppard’s message — a warning, perhaps — is driven home with force by an appearance from DC acting legend Nancy Robinette and Studio’s deft use of archival film footage.
A mile or so north from Studio — and a world away — GALA Theatre in the heart of Columbia Heights brings us the world of three impoverished children in 1960s Mexico City in this U.S. premiere of Emilio Carballido’s Yo también hablo de la rosa. The play is performed in Spanish with English surtitles.
In the play, Toña and Polo (Sharon Desiree and Steven Soto), along with their older friend Maximino (Edwin R. Bernal), try to fish coins from a pay phone in order to buy candy. Their efforts — at first thwarted by greed-inspired gambling — eventually succeed. But along the way, the friends inadvertently cause a horrific train derailment for which they will pay a heavy price.
The children’s cruel fates become the basis for all sorts of posturing from the likes of pompous academics and zealous political theorists. The stage is crowded by those who grasp at explanations for delinquency and poverty, while slyly seeking validation of world views based on overheated academic discourse and the strident rhetoric of would-be revolutionaries.
The children, it seems, are all but forgotten except for grieving parents and the gut-level honesty of poor people who see no reason not to grasp the opportunity for food and rob the derailed train.
In keeping with the staples of Latin-American literature, Carballido includes among his characters a medium played by Mexico’s acting legend, Julieta Egurrola. In the opening scene of the play, she casts her spell with a poetic, deeply moving monologue describing her heart as a sea anemone, her soul as a storage of human experience, and her mind as clairvoyant instrument.
Theater-goers should not miss this rare opportunity to see a beloved star so eloquently evoking the Mexican passion for mysticism, particularly as it concerns the mysteries of the human heart. GALA proves once again the power of live theater to help us embrace those mysteries and to reject the walls and prisons that disconnect all of us from compassion, empathy, and love.
The Hard Problem is playing at Studio (14th & P Sts., NW) through Feb. 26th. Ticket prices range from $20-$69. For box office, call (202) 332-3300; For general information, www.studiotheatre.org
Yo también hablo de la rosa is playing at GALA (14th St. & Park Rd., NW) through Feb. 26th. Ticket prices range from $25-$45. For box office, call (202) 234-7174; for general information, www.en.galatheatre.org.
Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.
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