BWW Reviews: DARWIN IN MALIBU - An Engaging Evening
Darwin in Malibu: Faith and Evolution at Mobtown Theater
By Mark Squirek
Everything changes. Everything adapts and eventually becomes something else. We age, we die and we become fertilizer and fodder for the future. Hell, that's how we got oil! In short, things evolve.
As much as every one of us knows that things change, the argument between science and religion about evolution goes on and on. One side says "I can't have come from an ape, no matter how much evidence you show me." The other replies "Hey, look at opposable thumbs. They had to come from somewhere."
To which a third party adds "Yeah, God gave me mine. You can think yours came from an ape, but I am much more comfortable with God."
The most common reason for disavowing evolution (change) in man is religious faith. So certain are these men and women of their beliefs that they will ignore any scientific "fact" placed in front of them. Their faith is that strong, a life sustaining force they need and enjoy.
To those whose lives aren't anchored in faith, for those who believe in science and science alone, for those who find skepticism and cynicism to be their religion, the idea of faith is almost impossible to understand.
Mobtown Theatre's production of Darwin in Malibu by Crispin Whittell is as much about faith as it is about evolution. It's an amazing line to walk and Whittle gives both sides their due as well as their own punch lines. The play is filled with raucous debate, a steadfast defense of one's ideas, wild theories and highly entertaining arguments. It is esoteric, ethereal and on many occasions, very funny.
As the lights rise the sounds of gulls and waves float across the theater. The large Mobtown stage seems even bigger as blues, pinks,light greens and browns fill the walls creating the impression of an eternal beach, the near emptiness creating a distinct feeling of never ending space. Across the back thin transparent drapes drift down from the ceiling, intimations of gentle winds just floating randomly.Sand sits strewn across the ground.
Near one corner, Charles Darwin (Mike Ware) sits quietly in a beach chair, clad in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. He sits motionless, his Ray Ban sunglasses filtering the bright light around him.
It's a languid and appealing scene that immediately draws everyone in as we each wish we could find a moment's peace like Darwin obviously has. (We know it is Darwin because of the massive beard!) As he sits a very soft surf guitar riff drifts out and at first, gives a definite sense of place and time. This comfort in the place will change several times over the evening.
The initial absence of dialogue, the immersion into the beach through the visuals and sounds allows the audience to "decompress" into the play. Director Caitlin Bouxsein smartly lets the scene linger just long enough until we fall into Darwin's world without him even moving a muscle.
It's a beautiful beginning to a play that ultimately holds little physical action but contains thoughts and ideas as large and violent as the Universe itself.
No explanation for how Darwin came to be on a beach in California is offered and the idea begins to grow that time itself may or may not be standing still, that they may or may not be dead, or possibly just in Purgatory. Even he is perplexed, but he is comfortable and happy. And for Darwin, that means a lot.
After a few moments a beautiful young woman joins Darwin. As soon as Sarah (Anne Powell) enters, the two extremes of youth and age are placed before us. Her appearance and vitality provide a striking contrast to the bearded and wrinkled scientist. It is a perfect representation of how, just in our own lifetimes, we each evolve into something new and different.
Unlike Darwin, who has such a firm and established identity in the mind of us all, Sarah simply "is". She brings drinks filled with fruit and, at first, seems to almost be the caretaker of the beach. But there is much more to why she is there. At first a waiter and then a greeter for the visitors that shatter Darwin's peace, her meaning to Darwin shifts and changes.
It is the introduction of Thomas Henry Huxley (Kevin Burke), his sideburns hanging like the ancient gardens of Babylon, which complicates matters. Torn from the peace of his day to day existence, Darwin is now forced to directly deal with what he wrote in the Origin of the Species.
The ideas and theories he put forth inflamed many people for many, many different reasons, both good and bad. As demonstrated by Huxley, sometimes a zealot and convert to what you propose can be even harder to deal with than those who directly oppose you. And Huxley loves to rage and debate.
When Darwin and Huxley are joined by Bishop Wilberforce (John D'Amato), the dialogue escalates as each makes their points, score some cheap shots and get some honest laughs. In some ways the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce pulls Darwin into the direction of being a referee between the two men, one of science and philosophy and the other built of faith and belief.
It is here that Darwin in Malibu really takes off as discussions rage and opinions fill center stage. Whittell throws thoughts and beliefs from both sides of the argument, each as forceful, intelligent and correct as the next, right into the mix.
For all the flash of such a hot button topic as evolution, Whittell fills the arguments about religion, death, science, philosophy and faith with logic and shows no favoritism to any side or any belief. As the play develops you begin to feel that what may be the most important thing in our lives is not what we believe, but our connection to each other.
Some people need to argue with some one else and others need to simply be with people. The important thing is that we acknowledge each other, that we remember those who, good or bad, pass through our lives and decide to share their time with us.
Whittell also makes the idea of faith, the admission of absolute belief in God and His word and plan, a concept that many find easy to ridicule, very human and perfectly understandable. Much of this has to do with the conviction and sincerity of D'Amato's deep commitment to his performance. He gives a heart and humanity to Wilberforce that never wavers as we see what makes up the person underneath the Bishop's cassock.
In one of the plays best moments he and Darwin talk about how they each handled the death of a loved one. As they talk we begin to understand how important faith can be to someone. Darwin is somewhat mystified, hurt and confused by death.
As Wilberforce talks about his wife's passing we see his faith at work and it becomes clear how much faith means to him, how much it grounds him in his life. How it supported him during times of intense pain and loss. It's a beautiful balance to Darwin's despair and confusion. Ware and D'Amato are so convincing that we forget what they represent and we see each man standing fully revealed, their strength and faults on display for all to see.
During another exchange, Huxley pounds him for details on Noah's ark, its size, what animals were on it, how many made the voyage, what they ate, Wilberforce never blinks. Each answer comes straightforward and his conviction never wavers.
It is during these testy exchanges that, as Huxley, Burke occasionally seems to be reciting his lines, adding a bit of stiff anger and volume into the scene instead of bringing the emotion and language into a coherent and complete character.
When, at the end of a very funny game of "intellectual strip-poker" the Bishop stands near naked and triumphant as Huxley stands still clothed, Burke finally reaches an emotional moment that shows us the man inside Huxley. After Wilberforce calls him on his emotional distance form a loved one, Burke shows a man who is genuinely confused, totally unable to understand how Wilberforce got him to stand emotionally naked while almost all of his clothes are still on his body.
The production is wonderfully served by the sound design of Carlos Guillen, the lights of Justin Thillman and the set design of Jessica Ruth Baker. Like the work of Director Bouxsein, none of what they have put on stage overwhelms the story that Whittell wrote, their work only enhances it. The music and effects chosen by Guillen, a noted Baltimore musician in his own right, especially shines as the warm harmonies of the final song contrast the loneliness and sense of displacement of all four inhabitants found on this Malibu Beach.
With very few exceptions Darwin in Malibu is a beautifully subtle and engaging evening. Given the eternal nature of the disagreements at the core of evolution, It isn't going to change anyone's mind about science versus religion but it will make you think and certainly provide both sides of the argument with a good laugh. Unlike so many plays centered around an "issue", Darwin in Malibu moves farther and farther away from the issue issue itself and the characters become more and more human, which is exactly what draws us in.
Darwin in Malibu continues its run at the Mobtown Players theater, now thorugh April 21st, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 15th at 4 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.mobtownplayers.com.
ABOUT MARK SQUIREK: A graduate of UMBC as well as The Players Workshop of Second City, Squirek has acted in, directed or written numerous plays over the last 25 years. In 2006 Broadway World named him Playwright of the Year for his one act SOD. He has worked at theaters in New York, Chicago, Baltimore and Washington D.C. For two years (2007-2009) he was on the Board at Mobtown. His first novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Society of the Diamond Tattoo, is scheduled to be published by Pro-Se Press in July.