After Him, the Deluge

20. February, 2012 Theater No comments

Mesmeric Revelation…Before Edgar Allen Poe has nothing to do with Edgar Allen Poe. The second play that Los Angeles writer/director Aaron Henne has created with Berkeley’s Central Works, Mesmeric Revelation… is named after an 1844 Poe short story that’s almost entirely in dialogue, a metaphysical conversation about the nature of God, matter, consciousness and reality with a client in an induced mesmeric trance. But the show isn’t at all based on the Poe story, although there are a few nods to it in subject matter and stretches of dialogue. Instead it’s set shortly before the French revolution, focusing on the man who came up with mesmerism in the first place.

Joe Jordan in Mesmeric Revelation…. Photo by Jay Yamada.

In the play, the renowned “father of modern chemistry,” Antoine Lavoisier, heads a commission of the French Academy of Sciences to investigate the alleged science of “animal magnetism” or mesmerism, Franz Anton Mesmer’s claim to be able to cure any ailment by setting aright the “universal fluid” that makes up all bodies through a magnetic laying on of hands. The fact that all parties are agreed that such a fluid is imperceptible to the senses considerably complicates the prospect of proving its existence.

Such a hearing was in fact held in 1784, with Ben Franklin as another commissioner, but in the play the stakes are unclear: There’s some talk of Mesmer leaving France if his claims are found to be without merit, and he expresses the hope of being admitted to the academy if his theories hold up, but what the consequences might be if he’s found to be a charlatan are vague at best.

In any case, here the audience is addressed as fellow members of the academy, and both Lavoisier and Mesmer address us as much as each other, in the style of a courtroom drama or political debate without any rules about when each party is to speak.

The two-person cast consists of Joe Jordan and Theo Black, who had a similarly adversarial relationship in Henne’s previous piece for the company, A Man’s Home…an ode to Kafka’s Castle (Henne seems to be awfully fond of ellipses). Both are decked out by Tammy Berlin in white wigs and period finery, Mesmer’s a bit fancier than Lavoisier’s. There’s no set to speak of, just a period-appropriate painting above the mantel in the cozy Berkeley City Club room that houses all the company’s performances, plus a matches set of books, a couple of candles, and a few scientific implements in the wall sconces.

Jordan has marvelous, seemingly unflappable confidence as Mesmer, remaining upbeat as if oblivious to his interrogator’s contemptuous skepticism. Black seems very young as Lavoisier, more a cocky rookie prosecutor than an accomplished scientist. The sardonic smirk he gives the audience whenever Mesmer expounds his theories is terrifically entertaining, but he also seems easily shaken when it sounds as if his opponent may have a point, or the beginnings of one. Both have great charisma and a lively presence, which helps keep their back-and-forth dynamic. Director Henne uses the intimate space well, moving the actors around more than you’d think they might on such a formal occasion.

The verbal jousting is more sophistry than science, with each trying to trick the other into betraying either scientific principles, faith in God, or their own place as farther from God than the divinely appointed king. Some of the rhetoric is awfully amusing, such as when Mesmer argues that a still-blind woman whom he supposedly cured may just think she’s still blind because she’s not used to being able to see. It’s easy to get lost in some of the details of how the treatment works, particularly because Jordan’s Mesmer is so animated in the telling that it’s more fun to watch him than to try to make sense of the stuff he’s spouting.

Just when it seems as if the play’s going to be one long, interrupted debate for its full 90 minutes, it gets freaky. Mesmer convinces Lavoisier to undergo the treatment to prove or disprove its efficacy, and off we go down the rabbit hole. Once Lavoisier’s in a trance, Gary Graves’s lights dim, Gregory Sharpen’s sound grows echoey, and Mesmer turns sinister and sarcastic. He pretends to be Lavoisier’s wife, trying to cajole him from his work, which makes for an interesting scene but it’s hard to understand why Mesmer’s doing these things at all.

This whole sequence is terribly dramatic and shouty, with Mesmer assailing Lavoisier’s all-consuming devotion to the scientific method by doing everything possible to reduce him to a primal state. Perhaps appropriately, during this sequence it’s hard to make sense of anything anybody is talking about while they gesture hypnotically and speak in abstractions. (Sample stretch of consecutive dialogue: “A child is an effect.” “What are you if you cannot sustain?”) There’s also a bit about physically harming someone by vandalizing the pages of his writing that’s awfully reminiscent of A Man’s Home….

There are a few nods to class consciousness as an attempt to tie the action in with the impending French Revolution that would lose Lavoisier his head ten years later, but the connection feels tenuous at best. When Mesmer starts talking about revolution explicitly, it seems to come out of nowhere, despite the use of a thematically appropriate metaphor. Casting the self-styled physician in the role of a prophet seems, perhaps appropriately, like a touch of authorial hucksterism.

Mesmeric Revelation…
Through March 18
Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #20 of 2012, attended February 18.

About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment