28 August 2009

No Such Thing as Too Much Darwin: More Fringey Goodness

This post is a review of the play The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection or the Survival of (R)evolutionary Theories in the Face of Scientific and Ecclesiastical Objections: Being a Musical Comedy About Charles Darwin (1809-1882) by Tangram Theatre Company at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2009

If you somehow managed to make it through that title to the blog post, congratulations! And I congratulate myself on making it to another Fringe post. Seriously, we have to stop going to shows. This reviewing thing is brutal.

The first question is, of course, what's the deal with all the Darwin? Not one, but TWO musical Darwin performances at the same Fringe? Why not some other significant scientific thinkers - say, a operetta about Einstein, or Copericus's heliocentric model told through interpretive dance? Where is the love?

There are two reasons it's all about Darwin. First, this is the bicentennary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of the Species (see here, here, here, and here for only a few of the many individuals making a fuss). Second, Darwin studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh for two years in the 1820s. He didn't graduate and didn't cover himself with any academic glory, but universities tend to forgive matriculants just about anything if they're successful in later life (witness Yale, which expelled James Fenimore Cooper as an undergrad over over pranks including, apparently, training a donkey to sit in a professor's chair and setting off an explosion in a classmate's room, and then later gave him an honorary degree). In this year and this city, then, Darwin is a big deal.

The Origin of the Species... is a one-man show set in Darwin's study, with the conceit that he audience is actually in the space listening to and responding to Darwin. The real reason to see this show is that the actor playing Darwin, John Hinton, is entertaining beyond all belief. The music is not particularly hummable - the fun is in hearing him perform it, (accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar, which he claimed to have learned at boarding school) and occasionally joining in. Yes, there's some funny audience participation in the show, as when he asks some people seated in the front row to pantomime the lyrics to his "Barnacle" song. It sounds harmless enough when he's talking about eating and sleeping, but when the barnacles have to mate, things get pretty entertaining. He also, at various times, used an audience member as a music stand, discovered and juggled rubber spiders from under a chair, and asked us all to rise to demonstrate the differing characteristics of South American, European, and Galapagos Island finches. You just can't resist having a good time.

It didn't feel at all redundant to see both this show and The Rap Guide to Evolution. The Rap Guide was more of a show about evolutionary theory - what it says, how it works, how it relates to the modern world - whereas Origin of the Species was more biographical. Darwin told stories about his youthful academic misadventures, his journey on the HMS Beagle, the risks of marriage to his cousin Emma ("Little Charlie has six fingers on one hand..."), and the successful publication of his famous book.

This was our first time attending a sell-out performance (although Rap Guide was close to full) and I'm sure that helped keep the energy up. Still, I give a lot of credit to the actor playing Darwin. He had great energy. He used his body language and voice well, assigning accents and quirks of gesture or posture to do impressions of Darwin's relatives and scientific acquaintances, which helped you keep the characters straight. He also improvised well, wondering how a woman with a cell phone ringing had managed to fit a brass band in her bag.

All in all, it's a great show, and suitable for late middle school and up, depending on one's own tolerance for pot innuendo and the sexy side of evolution. I had a wonderful time.

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