I was struck by playwright Deborah Stein’s provocative description in the stage directions about where the play takes place: “fairs, festivals, and drawing rooms across America, and in the mind’s eye.” For me, this description, as well as the variety of theatrical styles suggested by the script—vaudeville, melodrama, Grand Guignol (gothic horror), realism, and circus, opened up an exciting realm of possibilities in terms of staging, acting, multi-media projections, and design. The design team drew inspiration from Steam Punk, a sub-genre of fantasy that emerged in the 1980s.
The stage is set at the World's Fair Exposition in Chicago in 1893; a fair of such magnitude that it transformed the American psyche and paved the way for innovations of the 20th century. The fair premiered a variety of new products from Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, and the Ferris Wheel. At this historical moment, the American public still had a great fear of electricity. Part of the objective of the fair was to convince the American public that electricity was safe.
The inspiration for the play, according to playwright Deborah Stein, was the story of Wilhelm Roentgen (the inventor of the x-ray) and his wife, Berta. She writes, “The story about looking at her hand in x-ray and saying, ‘this is what it looks like to be dead.’ I was really struck by how this anecdote contained the paradox of the 20th century: awe at man’s seemingly unlimited capacity to invent ways to do things no one thought possible (i.e., see through skin) while at the same time this triumph was a harbinger of death (radiation leading eventually to the atomic bomb). For me, this is the story of the 20th century in a nutshell—the human capacity to invent and create wonder is also opening a Pandora’s box of terrible things. At what point is it better not to know—to be left, in effect, in the dark?”
This roller coaster ride through the archives of history merges historical figures such as Thomas Edison, Clarence Dally, Wilhelm and Berta Roentgen with imagined vaudeville characters, Josephine Dally, Nana and the Medium. At its core, the play both questions the ethics of scientific discovery and tells the love story of Clarence and Josephine. While surrounded by the boisterous energy of the vaudeville stage, a darker truth behind the x-ray lurks, revealing the darkness behind the light.
Directed by Rachel Bowditch
Assist Director, Katherine Nigh
Stage Manager, Stephen Gardner
Media Design by Micah Stieglitz
Lighting Design by Troy Buckey
Set Design by Wrara Pleisou
Sound Design by Dustin Chaffin
Original Composition by Dan Pucci
Costume Design by Samantha Armitage
Nick Broderick, Lauren Dykes, Josh Katzker, Sara Schwabe, George Moakly, Michael Thompson, Jamie Sandomire, and Eric Wheeler.