Thursday, May 22, 2008

QED: A One Genius Show About Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman was one of the foremost physicists of recent decades. His biography by James Gleick is simply titled, Genius.

He was also an eccentric individualist in various theatrical ways. British writer C. P. Snow said it was “as though Groucho Marx was suddenly standing in for a great scientist.”

 Feynman played a role in developing the atomic bomb during World War II, and in discovering why the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986. He became a public figure through television interviews and popular books which expressed his unique approach to science, and to life.

Several of those books were the basis for a (mostly) one-genius play, QED, written by Peter Parnell with the active participation of actor Alan Alda, who came up with the idea and played Feynman in its Broadway run in 2001 and 2002.

 Randy Wayne is playing the fascinating Feynman, directed by James Read in the Redwood Curtain production, on stage at the Arcata Playhouse Thursday through Saturday for its second and final weekend.

Wayne, featured in many Redwood Curtain productions as well as other local theatres, holds the stage alone, as we see Feynman in his Cal Tech office, dealing with a physics lecture he has to write, taking phone calls concerning some visiting Russians and crucial personal matters, on an evening he plays a drumming Polynesian in a local production of South Pacific. The only other person to appear is a pretty physics student, played by Melanie A. Quillen.

 Wayne confidently explains and even illustrates a few physics concepts, while hitting the emotional notes that suggest other colors in this character. Though he doesn’t look or sound like Feynman, he does reproduce Feynman’s four-syllable pronunciation of his signature word: “interesting.”

 In my view the play tries to do too much, but audiences are in for an entertaining and thought-provoking experience, thanks to the clarity of Wayne’s performance. For those inspired to learn more about Feynman, several of the play’s anecdotes are even better in the fuller versions contained in his in-ter-est-ing book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, and in the TV interviews in “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out,” which can be found on YouTube, along with other Feynman appearances.

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