Mad Science


A.P. chem was never like this. When physicists Anna Lenehan and Lorenz Boleslaw–adjusting oscilloscopes, pounding data into Powerbooks, and denying geometry, all in the name of scientific research–break through to the Chaos Zone, we’re not just talking “mental leap.” Say the magic words, “Clouds are not spheres,” and the couple are wrenched from their lab reality by a psychedelic tornado. Fractal patterns splatter across mathematical formulae. Oh, and here come Marie and Pierre Curie on bicycles, glowing radioactively through the non-Euclidean debris.

“All stories that have alternative realities have some explanation,” says Matthew Maguire, librettist for the science-fiction opera Chaos, opening at the Kitchen October 10. “One of my favorites is from The Wizard of Oz where the Wizard says, ‘I am now about to get in my balloon and make a very dangerous journey which is technically impossible to explain.’ And in a sense our passage to the Chaos Zone is technically impossible to explain, except that the characters use this antigeometry code, ‘Clouds are not spheres,’ which one of the greater chaos theorists, Benoit Mandelbrot, said. That’s their ‘open sesame’–or Dorothy clicking the red heels.” Mimicking the Wizard, Chaos‘s director Bob McGrath giddily agrees: “I can’t stop it, I don’t know how it works–goodbye, folks!”

Chatting with Chaos junkies–Maguire, McGrath, and composer Michael Gordon–redefines the power lunch. Angelica’s Kitchen serves only grain coffee, a nonstimulant beverage, but the neurons firing around our table need no assistance. The first-time collaboration of these three experimental heavyweights spells theater history in the making. But for them, it’s about the here and now. Maguire explains, “You can work in an arena side by side over the years and watch one another’s work; sometimes it’s fun to get in the sandbox together.” Chaos, which began development in 1992 through workshops at New Dramatists, is the brainchild of Maguire (codirector of Creation Production Company and a 1998 Obie recipient) and Gordon (codirector of Lincoln Center’s annual Bang on a Can Festival). Several drafts and five years later, they added McGrath’s Obie-winning directorial vision to the mix, with his Ridge Theater design team in tow (Laurie Olinder, Fred Tietz, filmmaker Bill Morrison, and lighting designer Howard Thies)–and heard the test tubes pop.

Nothing sounds better to Anna and Lorenz, the opera’s star-crossed lovers. Crossed not by fate but by the scientific establishment, they research controversial chaos theory–but the malicious Dr. Aguabone is hot on their trail. With a little help from the Curies, otherworldly bike messengers from the Chaos Zone, our thermodynamic duo charges onward into virgin territory, driven to “unlock the unimagined.” What the characters do intellectually, the artists do aesthetically, staking out ground between bloody emotion and bloodless abstraction. “There’s a way to do both,” claims Gordon, “to have a certain emotion or humanness, but veil it so it’s not splashing all over the place. Aesthetically, I often feel that’s what I’m doing. I find a parallel in that the entire opera is happening behind scrims.” One minute, Gordon’s music could be the soundtrack to an amoeba, sweetly gurgling from one shape into another; the next, it’s a thousand balloons bursting in arrhythmic frenzy. “There’s something about the way he puts together rhythms,” Maguire suggests, “butted up against one another, propulsive but not exactly synchronous. This creates a kind of rhythmic dissonance with immense order underneath it all, very much like chaos theory.”

Gordon’s multistylistic soundscape will be matched, tone for tone, by McGrath’s multimedia mise-en-scène, using 30-foot-high scrims, slide projectors, and film footage of fractals and planetary revolution. On top of so many layers, or perhaps through them, the five-member cast will sing what is essentially a simple story sprinkled with fantastical dust. Is clarity a concern? “It would be great if it worked like a dream,” McGrath says, “where you kind of know what’s happening but you couldn’t really describe it.”

Chaos‘s interplay between dream and technical wizardry suggests a link between art and science. As Maguire puts it, “There really is a great similarity between artists and scientists. They’re people who have a desire to go places where no one else has gone before, who feel comfortable out there on the edge.”

“Almost more than ‘comfortable’–compelled,” adds McGrath. “That’s how I see Anna and Lorenz. They’re compulsive, like chaos junkies. I see them as a couple of Lower East Side artists who have trapped themselves in their apartment. Whether they’re trying to write a song or design a show or paint a picture or discover a new scientific concept, they’re obsessed”–a jolt fires across the table–“and I can relate to that.”