How responsible is a person for what others do with that person’s idea? Such is the subject of Vern Thiessen’s Einstein’s Gift, in which Albert Einstein, in the wake of the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945, reflects on his colleague Fritz Haber, the Nobel Prize–winning scientist whose research into Nitrogen Fixation, which saved thousands of Germans from starvation, was repurposed by the government to weaponize chlorine gas during World War One.
Should Haber be vilified for the thousands killed as a result of his research? Should Einstein be held accountable for how his own work led to one of the greatest atrocities of the Twentieth Century? Should playwright Thiessen be held accountable for Dundas Little Theatre’s production of his play, helmed by director Ryan Trepanier?
To the last question, the answer is a resounding yes. As should everyone involved in this production, because Einstein’s Gift is devastatingly good.
On its own, Thiessen’s script is conversational yet poetic in language, and, with its theme of science appropriated or altered to serve a governmental agenda, remains alarmingly topical. It juggles a lot of balls — the Haber/Einstein friendship, Haber’s marriages, his rise to success and infamy, his struggles with faith and nationalism, Einstein’s quiet musings and regrets — but it never drops any. Yet it is under Trepanier’s visionary direction — his understanding not just of the characters’ relationship to each other, but of the theatrical world they physically exist within — that all those elements not only come together, but come to life.
And what a stage! Peter Lloyd has transformed DLT’s space into a thing of minimal décor and pure geometric beauty, an array of ebony obelisks standing Stonehenge–like before a series of rings on the ground, reminiscent of an atomic circle — or perhaps an impact crater. Across this entire space, the actors dance, fight, cavort, and even draw, never once revoking any suspension of disbelief that this space is not a university lab, a private club, or a WWI battlefield. The choice to incorporate the theatre’s vomitorium as a lectern for Haber and others, and not just a point of entrance and exit, is also a welcome touch (though, admittedly, the choice to have one of Haber’s speeches directed out of the theatre instead of in is questionable).
The set’s minimalism extends to the colour pallet — both the set and the costumes (once more the work of DLT’s wardrobe maestros Jane Snider and Sally Watson) are rendered largely in earth tones or assorted tints of black, white, and gray. This too is by design, for it creates the canvas upon which lighting designer David Faulkner–Rundle paints the setting and atmosphere of each scene, be it in the soothing soft blues of nighttime, the sunny whites of a seashore, or in harsh, nightmarish shades of sodium yellow — this last used to particularly haunting effect near the end of the first act. To say nothing of the attention–grabbing way Faulkner–Rundle and sound designer George Thomas kick the show off.
Populating this magical theatrical space is a game ensemble of talented actors, each interacting with each other with fine conversational pacing and intense emotion. DLT veterans Peter Lloyd and Nicholas Ruddick are suitably imposing in their paired roles of military officers and Nazi officials (the latter including Ruddick’s best costume), while newcomer Nan Chen as Haber’s assistant Otto is the living embodiment of enthusiasm. As Haber’s second wife Lotta, Rebecca Durance Hine is comfortably confident, certain of her every choice as both character and actor; as his first wife Clara, Christine Marchetti balances wistful optimism with a steely practical determination.
At the ensemble’s centre, we have Einstein and Haber. Einstein is the play’s ever–present memorial raconteur, rarely leaving the stage, and Gregory Flis is charmingly soft–spoken and heartbreakingly earnest in his portrayal. Haber is the play’s major protagonist, and while Ramzey Zourob isn’t always grounded, occasionally shuffling in place, he is tremendously compelling, mastering all of Haber’s many sides, from shy first date to impassioned scientist to conflicted–yet–resolved nationalist, with an emotional intensity matched only by his chemistry with everyone else in the show. The rapport these two share is immediate and palpable from the second they meet, and watching their friendship evolve, with all the accompanying mutual respect and disdain for the other, is but one of many highlights in the production.
Einstein’s Gift starts DLT’s 59th season off with a bang (almost literally), leaves nary a dry eye in the house by night’s end, and is absolutely not to be missed. V
Written by: Vern Thiessen
Directed by: Ryan Trepanier
Playing at: Dundas Little Theatre
Garstin Centre For the Arts,
37 Market St S, Dundas
Showdates: November 1, 2, 7, 8, 9 @ 8pm;
November 3, 10 @ 2pm
Tickets: $20 (general); $15 (student/senior)
Box Office: 905-627-5266