Swiss Expressionist playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt's masterpiece of espionage, nuclear proliferation, and the dilemma of the responsibility of the individual to society at large received a searing revival by the Oberon Ensemble. The Physicists is a compelling combination of black comedy and psychological thriller, with a touch of 007 thrown in. Written in 1961 at the height of the Cold War, concern with nuclear devastation and the Bomb was on everyone's mind. From a 40-year vantage point, the subject matter has lost a bit of its punch, but the deeper messages pertaining to society's survival are as resonant today as they were 40 years ago. Director Rex McGraw, well-known for his scholarship in the modern classics, and the director of last season's Ghosts, brilliantly guided his talented cast through the labyrinth of this complex piece.
Les Cerisiers, a posh alpine mental institution for the well-to-do, is presided over by the famous alienist, Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd, a depressed, hunchbacked old maid, whose own mental fitness is dubious at best. Among her celebrated patients are Herbert Georg Beutler, who believes he is Isaac Newton, Ernst Heinrich Ernesti, who claims to be Albert Einstein, and Johann Wilhelm Möbius, who is guided by visions of King Solomon. After all three patients murder their nurses within a 48-hour period, the reputation of Les Cerisiers comes under scrutiny. Beutler and Ernesti are actually spies sent to monitor the activities of Möbius, a real physicist who has discovered truths about nuclear fission that could destroy the world. Believing the sanitorium is the only safe place for him, Möbius has sequestered himself contentedly and has no intention of leaving, despite the financial and emotional burden he has placed on his family. Beutler and Ernesti are tired of their masquerade and want to leave, but after the murders they have committed to keep information from being spread, they realize they are now too enmeshed in the madness to leave.
The talented ensemble contributed portrayals of the highest caliber. Elowyn Castle played the evil, controlling Van Zahnd with a low-key elegance, gradually revealing her character's rotted psyche. Dan Hicks was a hysterical ball of energy as Beutler/Newton, William Laney a depressed, narcoleptic Ernesti/Einstein, and Brad Fryman contributed a galvanizing Möbius, filling the stage with frenetic energy. Linda Hetrick as Lina Rose, Möbius's put-upon ex-wife, looked like a refugee from The Sound of Music and offered a delightfully ditsy comic turn. Equally amusing was Stewart Walker as Oskar, Lina's new husband, a missionary recently reassigned to the Marianas. Laura Siner was a glamorous and sympathetic Nurse Monika Stettler, Möbius's lover and victim. Kate Ross, Mac Brydon, Jane Courtney, and Glenn Peters contributed strong comic support in secondary roles.
Set designer Ed Stauffer's elegant madhouse consisted of white bars against a black set, with luxurious furniture and Cubist paintings. Lights, also by Stauffer, were bright and serviceable, with little variety. Mary Margaret O'Neill's attractive costumes were totally appropriate for the characters, especially Hicks's 18th-century garb and extravagant wig.
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Copyright 2001 Julie Halpern