The Lost Studio Theater
130 S. La Brea Ave.
Through April 26

You may or may not have seen, in any number of textbooks, an antique engraving that depicts Galileo showing off a telescope to three muses who seem but mildly interested in his instrument. Little do the smug goddesses symbolizing Art realize that this new invention and others soon to follow will put them out of the business of explaining the universe to mortals. This picture was, no doubt, in its day the equivalent of a baseball card, an instructive, collectible image to be placed next to portraits of other heroes of the scientific revolution. It is in this vein that playwright Glen Berger has drolly titled his play Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22, an impressively intelligent work that sweetly pokes fun at scientists who practiced their craft at a time when it was still considered, like poetry and song, a fine art.

Today, we think of science in terms of fulfilling three tasks: to forestall untimely death, to ease pain and to protect us from as much manual labor as possible. (We may also look upon it as a way of facilitating the making of money, but that’s another tale.) The strength of Berger’s mesmerizing piece of storytelling, however, lies in putting science in its place by showing its early practitioners to be dreamy romantics bent on proving the existence of a rational God. To these earnest inventors of the future, there are still lyrical patterns in
the skies and rocks — even as their inquiry into such designs flattens the superstitious
poetry of faith.

Loosely based on the obscure careers of Jacques de Vaucanson and Lazarro Spallanzani, Berger’s play is set in the Paris of 1738, where Vaucanson (Matthew Allen Bretz), a young scientist smitten by the lovely but married Gabrielle du Chatelet (Alice Dodd), enters a contest sponsored by the Royal Academy of Sciences. He does this to divert her love in his direction and away from her paramour, none other than the suave philosopher Voltaire. To our modern ears the competition’s goal, to prove or refute the following statement, sounds farcically lofty: “The Apparent Randomness of Events in Nature, Will, If Subjected to Calculation, Reveal an Underlying Order Expressing Exquisite Wisdom and Design.” Vaucanson’s reply to this challenge is no less grand: He decides to construct a mechanical duck that will eat, shit and flap its wings like a real canvasback, one whose food “will be digested by dissolution, not trituration as some would have it. The matter digested is conducted by pipes quite to the Anus, where there is a Sphincter that lets it out.” In other words, he will prove the statement. He is encouraged by a somewhat disreputable Jesuit Abbe (Bob Clendenin) and an Italian biologist, Spallanzani (Jim Anzide), who’s obsessed with frogs, or, more precisely, with their reproductive antics.

Throughout Act 1 Vaucanson strives with comic heroism to create his automata while grappling with more practical concerns: painful gallstones, the search for a lost wig that contains precious equations, and, above all, heartache over the fickle Chatelet, whose famous lover is determined to refute the contest’s thesis. Berger maintains the whimsical mood throughout the royal competition, which seems more rooted in the world of fairy tales than in the age of reason. (In an odd way, Vaucanson’s quest emerges as a kind of upside-down version of Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, only instead of enlisting the devil to win a girl’s hand through a shooting contest, Vaucanson tries to obtain the same prize by flattering an unresponsive God.)

Act 2 is set much later, in the throes of that great paroxysm of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution. Now the focus is the aged and impoverished Spallanzani, who dreams of proving that spermatozoa have nothing to do with fertilizing eggs and are in fact nothing but strange parasites. His method of proof is clearly groundbreaking: He and his cantankerous housekeeper (Melanie Van Betten) will affix 29 pairs of miniature taffeta trousers to male frogs, a pioneering if misguided attempt at contraception. (With these French letters, it’s strictly Return to Sender, although Spallanzani still retains a place in scientific history for his experiments in animal artificial insemination; the real-life Vaucanson didn’t fare so well in the history books.)

Great Men of Science (Vaucanson and Spallanzani are presumably Nos. 21 and 22) vibrates with the enthusiasm and clear-eyed optimism of its scientific frontiersmen, whose calipers and microscopes were creating secular humanism in the name of a heaven they presumed ran like a gigantic clock. If, to borrow Marx’s observation, the anarchist Proudhon smashed French phrasemongering with phrases, then Vaucanson and his brethren can be said to have created atheism by trying to prove God’s existence.

Likewise, Berger cunningly embraces, in Vaucanson’s project, the essence of the Cartesian idea that animals, whether mallards, bullfrogs or stallions, are but machines created by that ultimate engineer, God. But, putting Descartes before the horse, so to speak, Vaucanson manages to pull off his unintentionally blasphemous invention and win the Royal Academy’s contest. As one teary-eyed witness to this episode in the scientific revolution proclaims: “That is not merely a duck up on that pedestal, it is mankind, it is all of us, our lives . . . He has captured the very essence of Human Existence.”

The Enlightenment’s enthusiasm and Berger’s witty script are matched by Jillian Armenante’s staging in a Circle X Theater Co. production currently winding down its run at the Lost Studio Theater. The stage apron is loaded with pulleys, cables and sandbag counterweights that cleverly comment on the period’s mechanistic view of nature, just as, when he speaks, Vaucanson breaks down into schematic detail the simple movements of the people he’s observing. Not only that, but, in what could be a cheeky sendup of genre watercolors, Chatelet opens the play by singing on a swing — her hooped skirts illuminated by tiny lights. And when Vaucanson meets Spallanzani for the first time, as the Italian, showing the unfortunate results of an earlier experiment, vomits prodigiously into a pond, remote-controlled cutouts of ducks and frogs whirl around the floor; later, as Spallanzani reclines in his bath, à la David’s Marat, he is surrounded by croaking frog cutouts that “jump” to the whims of tiny air pumps. It is a sign of theater’s enduring power that set designer Gary Smoot’s mechanical contraptions, which would go unnoticed in a film, when seen live become minor coups de théâtre as pulley-connected chairs vanish, doors open and a bed descends during the course of Act 1.

But more than these visual trumps, along with gold-painted putti, period music and an ongoing slide show, the production is powered by its performers. Bretz is truly memorable as Vaucanson, the handsome but web-toed dreamer, a man whose fanaticism for discovery only grows as his fortunes collapse. Armenante also gets sharp portrayals from her supporting cast members; in Act 2, for example, Anzide as Spallanzani and Van Betten as his housekeeper make perfect sense of what could easily have come off as a slapstick shouting match between two elderly people who don’t look particularly elderly. Instead, the two actors disclose a smoldering, needy love-hate relationship that even near its terminus is animated by a combative unrequited sexual longing.

There is a distinct if jagged line connecting Vaucanson’s clockwork duck to Dolly, DNA’s sheep of reason, just as a parallel track connects the sanguinary afternoons of the Tuileries to the experiments at Auschwitz. Glen Berger demonstrates a love of history and mischievous skills in rewriting it. He has given us a play with as provocative a view of scientists as Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists, only here the play looks at them from the small end of Galileo’s telescope, often reducing these intellects to mere clowns — or at least to mere men. For Great Men of Science, Nos. 21 & 22 leads us down a charming dead-end road that was once taken by two seekers whose work is now remembered only as a sideshow to the great and terrible carnival of progress.

LA Weekly