BWW Review: DISINHERIT THE WIND Takes on Richard Dawkins in an Emotionally Blighted Play of Ideas
A picture is worth a thousand words. That classic idiom beautifully epitomizes art's edge over academics. "Art" is the power to slay a person's emotions without using any words at all. It's the belief that a single muscle twitch can reveal more than a 32-volume encyclopedia. As Charles Bukowski once quipped, "An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way."
Matt Chait is reprising his feature-length play, Disinherit the Wind, after a successful maiden run at the end of 2015. It's a wordy "play of ideas", whose script more closely resembles a paper in an academic theological journal than a piece of art...
About the Story
This very collegial courtroom drama follows former Biology Professor Bertram Cates (played by Matt Chait himself), after he gets fired for teaching New Age spirituality in his Biology course. Cates brings a wrongful termination lawsuit against the university, and puts Darwinian Evolution, the cautiousness of science, and the whole d***ed system on trial! (Okay, he doesn't actually put the whole d***ed system on trial; I'm just trying to make this review a little more entertaining. Plus it's 3am and I'm drunk.)
Disinherit the Wind is a clear nod to the 1950's play and film Inherit the Wind, which dramatized the real-life "Scopes Monkey Trial" (where a high school teacher was criminally prosecuted in the State of Tennessee for teaching evolution to high school students). Chait's point with his present piece is that science has turned into a dogmatic religion that rejects new ideas. The formerly oppressed have become the oppressors.
Dr. Cates believes that since there are holes in the theory of Darwinian Evolution, he
should therefore be able to spend class time teaching Biology students about spiritual meditation, healing people with chakra crystals, and seeing out of their "third eye." He criticizes the rigidity of the school's adherence to the scientific method for not just letting him teach his un-backed New Age theories to his science classes with no questions asked (what jerks).
As you can probably tell from my snark, I was firmly on the antagonist's side.
How Was It?
Short Answer: It's a "play of ideas" where the ideas overpower the art. It's pretty much a three hour-long lecture by Matt Chait against Darwinian Evolution. The show's very heady; it's full of big words; and yet, in my humble opinion, makes very silly arguments. The experience is closer to sitting through a college philosophy lecture, taught by the campus' resident bat-shit insane tenured professor, than it is a night out at the theatre. I cannot think of many people I could, in good conscious, recommend this to.
I still commend Chait for writing from the heart about a topic he's passionate about. Although I disagree with him, it was interesting to see an anti-evolution perspective staged in the theatre. I'm a firm believer of diversity of ideas (even those I don't agree with). Hats off to you Matt Chait for trying something different. Feel free to use the word "interesting" in this paragraph out of context for a pull quote. You have my permission. (Okay, now back to my snarky review...)
Disinherit the Wind serves as a theatrical straw man argument, where a cocky British scientist named Robert Hawkins (who is so obviously famed UK biologist Richard Dawkins, he might as well just call that character by his real name) sits as an expert witness while Dr. Cates "cross-examines" him about Darwinian Evolution. And, of course, Hawkins ends up dumbfounded and at a loss for words at Chait's character's superior reasoning skills (since, you know, he wrote the script).
The play targets a New Age demographic and seeks to provide them with comfort and reassurance in their beliefs. The show makes the argument that science actually supports the tenants of New Age spirituality, which of course is silly.
Don't get me wrong; a lot of good has come from the New Age. Like all religions, it gives its followers a purpose, and elevates them above reality during times when reality really sucks. The only time I firmly put my foot down against New Age spirituality is when chronically sick people delay getting actual medical treatment in favor of laying in those weird disco crystal beds, or getting healed by a glorified tuning fork by some throwback hippy. I like throwback hippies, but you really shouldn't be relying on their medical advice. Hippies have good weed, write good music, and make good art, but I don't trust them when it comes to medicine (or "healing" as they like to call it). Medicine is one of those things academics actually do way better.
It should come as no surprise to you by now that I had a really hard time emphasizing with the protagonist. I personally think if professor routinely wastes time in his biology class teaching future doctors about chakras, that's a fantastic reason to terminate him. My lack of empathy for Dr. Cates wasn't the only the thing that killed the show, though.
Disinherit the Wind is way too collegial for its own good. The production bills itself as a "play of ideas", and it certainly delivers that promise. To me, though, calling a show "a play of ideas" is a cop-out. Rent is a "musical of ideas", but it doesn't need to bill itself as that. Rent is thought provoking, but also delivers on art, emotion, and entertainment. Hamilton is a musical of ideas, but likewise doesn't need to bill itself as that. Hell, Reefer Madness the Movie Musical (one of my guilty pleasure all-time favorite musicals) is thought provoking, satirical, and entertaining at the same time. Art, entertainment, and thought are not mutually exclusive. It's possible to have all three of those things together, and good shows do have them all. This show, however, limited itself to being just a "play of ideas", akin to an academic essay. Art, emotion, and entertainment took a back seat.
The first scene was literally a fifteen-minute lecture from Dr. Cates to the audience. Although the setting eventually shifts to inside a courtroom, the preaching continues. Dr. Cates represents himself in court pro-se and when he "cross examines" the expert witnesses, he is basically just giving another two-hour-long discourse about his beliefs on evolution (which, as a law student, I assure you is not allowed in court. You have to actually ask questions during direct and cross-examinations, but I digress.)
If I had to fancy a guess, I would say Dr. Cates had 95% of all the show's lines.
Mad props must be given to all the performers who basically just sat on stage for two hours in silence listening to Chait's character rewording his beliefs on evolution. There were wonderful opportunities to expand on the relationships between the characters, but those moments were lost in the hours of monologues and arguments made by Dr. Cates against Darwinism. The show did have a few high points, though.
Some of the acting was fantastic. Worth mentioning is Matt Chait himself, who delivered a very committed, energetic, and passionate performance (although, I'm pretty sure he was just being himself). Also worth mentioning is Circus-Szalewski, who played the snooty British biologist, Dr. Robert Hawkins, with an entertaining and engaging authenticity. Ken Stirbl played a very believable soul-washed and cutthroat civil defense attorney. Christina Hart portrayed a very empathetic judge who had absolutely no control over her courtroom.
G. Smokey Campbell (who played the school's dean, Dr. JarEd Brown) and Renahy Aulani (who played the dean's daughter, Melinda Brown) sewed the entire emotional fabric of the show together. The few drops of emotion and art that rested in this emotionally blighted academic "play of ideas" came from those two performers alone.
Who Should See It?
I recommend Disinherit the Wind to anybody who's into New Age spirituality, opposes the theory of evolution, and is looking to have their beliefs reinforced.
Christians who also oppose Darwinian Evolution might also enjoy this play. It has a very God Is Not Dead feel to it.
I would not recommend this show to anybody else.
How to See It
Disinherit the Wind runs at The Complex, Ruby Theatre, through April 9th. Tickets cost $25 for general admission and can be purchased here or by calling (323) 960-4420.
Like them on facebook at www.facebook.com/DTWtheplay.
The Complex, Ruby Theatre, is located at 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood, CA 90038.
Production photos by Ed Krieger.