Asked to explore the mysteries of consciousness and cosmos, few of us would immediately turn to the iconography of chairs. But in “Einstein’s Dreams,” a carefully orchestrated, poetic co-production by the District’s Spooky Action Theater and Burning Coal Theatre of Raleigh, N.C., director and choreographer Rebecca Holderness locates eloquence in the humble piece of furniture.
Imagining the revolutionary notions about time that Albert Einstein may have been kicking about in 1905, “Einstein’s Dreams” features a large ensemble that moves and dances around, and sometimes on, a dozen or so mismatched seats. No ottomans or mini-sofas here, just no-nonsense school- or office-worthy perches, positioned beneath dangling light bulbs — but somehow, the very prosaism of the picture suggests the dizzying grandeur of Einstein’s scientific vision.
“Einstein’s Dreams” — adapted by Kipp Erante Cheng from Alan Lightman’s 1993 novel — has more on its mind than gee-whizzing the physicist’s legacy, however: The hour-long show, which Holderness has staged in Raleigh and elsewhere, also touches on Einstein’s private life, especially his stint as an employee in the Swiss patent office early in the 20th century. Holderness’s performers, dressed in off-white period garb, sometimes channel the personalities of the scientist’s acquaintances and family members. At other times, the actors take turns acting as narrator, conjuring up visions of metaphysically vertiginous alternate realities: a world where time moves backwards; a world where time moves in a circle; a world where time moves more slowly at higher altitudes, prompting people to build houses on stilts.
The text brims with wonderment and restrained lyricism — qualities that, in combination with the mannered movement (actors making a bridge with their bodies, an actor doing an arabesque on a chair, etc.) and New Agey musical underscoring, occasionally imbue the show with a hint of preciousness.
On the whole, though, Holderness has managed to link language, design and physicality in a way that’s interesting and resonant, and her cast is quite competent. Adam Segaller, in particular, lends the production a much-needed center of gravity, portraying a dapper Einstein who has very little interest in focusing on people, rather than physics. (You can almost see the equations toggling through this guy’s head.) Burning Coal company member Jonathan Fitts brings welcome low-key bonhomie to the part of Besso, Einstein’s friend and co-worker at the patent office. (At one point, the production’s chairs get clustered together to form a boat in which the two colleagues go fishing.)
Frank Britton is a sturdy presence as Einstein’s son Hans Albert — a character who, thanks to the play’s nonlinear approach to story, appears as a grown-up — while Madeline Muravchik brings out the insecurities in Einstein’s wife Mileva. Sarah Olmsted Thomas floats around as Lieserl, who may be the couple’s long-lost daughter.
Designer Matthew Adelson’s rich, textured lighting quickens the production’s intensity, pooling brightness and shadow on chairs, white costumes and other surfaces. The sumptuousness of Adelson’s work seems particularly appropriate, given that the speed of light figures in Einstein’s celebrated equation E = mc2. In a climactic sequence in “Einstein’s Dreams,” the physicist writes the string of symbols on a glass pane with a dramatic flourish. Amazing, the insights one can reach while sitting in a chair.
Wren is a freelance writer.
adapted by Kipp Erante Cheng from Alan Lightman’s book. Direction and choreography by Rebecca Holderness; set and props design, Vicki Davis; costumes, Lynly Saunders; sound, Elisheba Ittoop. With Connor Hogan, Whitney Madren, Wendy Wilmer and others. One hour. Through June 26 at Spooky Action Theater at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. Call 301-920-1414 or visit www.spookyaction.org.