Darwin in Malibu

“As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities.” Charles Darwin, 1879, in a letter to J. Fordyce.

At the outset of “Darwin in Malibu”, we see Charles Darwin lounging in a Hawaiian shirt, cutoffs, and sandals. We suspect that this is not the Darwin of the dour countenance we have seen in pictures. Indeed, the conceit of the play begins with the premise that the famed biologist resides in a paradise-like purgatory a century after his passing from life as we know it. What follows is a humorous and interesting look into a vital intellectual realm.

The purpose of the play is to provide a playful vehicle for discussion of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, one of the most seminal, profound, and controversial postulates in scientific history. A useful backstory to the play is provided in a pre-play talk by director Bruce Coughran.

For those who may not know, Darwin misclassified the famed Galapagos finches that are central to the theory. He thought that he had identified finches, warblers, and gosbeaks, but he later learned from ornithologists back in England that all of the specimens were finches. The bumbling that led to his treatise on natural selection cannot be understated, no matter how indelible the theory would become. In fact, he was not a biologist but was training in earth science when he took the assignment on the Beagle, which brought him to the Galapagos. He had studied Charles Lyell’s “Principles of Geology” and having learned theories about changes in the earth’s surface from that source, he was able to map Lyell’s notions onto a biological framework.

It is also noteworthy that Darwin was cautious about developing and expounding the theory of natural selection, and he largely abandoned the critical public debates, leaving his position to be advanced by the ardent Thomas Huxley. A prominent critic of the theory was Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who along with Huxley participated in the era’s most famous public debate of the theory, the 1860 Oxford Evolution Debate. Thus, the play is largely a series of informal two and three party arguments among Darwin, Huxley, and Wilberforce in a Malibu beach house.

The characters and their depictions are well delineated. George Killingsworth is Darwin, and he is played as an easy going man comfortable in his own skin. He is amused, amazed, and true to real life, he is uncertain of things religious and how exactly they fit with natural selection. He even reads horoscopes and trashy novels like his current diversion, “Malibu” by Pat Booth.

Darwin’s ally, Huxley, is played with unrelenting fervor by Robert Ernst. As a man committed to science, Huxley is highly empirical and brooks no compromise with beliefs that are not supported by fact. When he is asked which side of his family is descended from apes, he responds, “I’d rather be an ape than a bishop,” which is an adulturation of his real life reply. The other visitor, Wilberforce, is played with the smugness of a true believer by Stuart Elwyn Hall, and like, Huxley, he is didactic and dogmatic. Wilberforce and Darwin did not meet in real life, but somehow, after a century in “purgatory,” the former felt that the latter could be persuaded of the literal reading of the Bible and that he would abandon his theory.

The plot proceeds as a series of intellectual vignettes rather than a linear dramatic arc. Each of these giants is effective in making points, but Wilberforce slips when forced to respond to hypothetical examples. In one case, Darwin gets him to agree that he would be able to shoot partridges if he were in heaven. But then the bishop is forced to accept either that Darwin would be shooting partridges that are “good”, because they were in heaven, or he would be shooting partridges that are “bad” and shouldn’t be in heaven. Another more compelling example concerns Noah’s Arc. Without dwelling on details, Wilberforce is virtually forced to admit that because of space constraints in the arc, that evolution must have occurred since The Flood. Further interesting debate centers on Darwin’s arguing that Wilberforce’s heaven equates to Darwin’s hell, and that Wilberforce’s notion of perfection looks back in time, while Darwin’s looks forward.

In all, the play provides considerable food for thought in an entertaining package. The script does have some problematic elements, mostly around the fourth character, a young beach girl, Sarah, played by Leandra Ramm, who does bring a fine singing voice to the party. While Sarah facilitate in some ways, and she has a storyline of her own concerning love and loss, it’s a stretch to integrate it with the high order primary themes. It almost seems that the part was created to include a feminine accessory in the proceedings. The opening sequences with Darwin and Sarah are a bit pedestrian and lack energy. However, by the time the arguments begin, the activity level is pretty pumped up.

“Darwin in Malibu” by Crispin Whittell is produced by Intra’s Net Theater and is performed at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave, Berkeley, through January 15, 2017.

Victor Cordell
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association

Gertrude Stein and a Companion

“There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer.” Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein rests atop an odd pedestal in the gallery of fame. Certainly a wit of the highest order, her aphorisms are incisive and memorable. Her writing is sophisticated but confusing and is often given as much to cadence as content. Though a friend and contemporary of future Nobelists, her only significant contribution to the canon of literature was her slyly misnamed “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” from 1933, an honor to her lover and manager of the last 40 years of her life.

Alice is the unnamed party in “Gertrude Stein and a Companion,” and the title draws from Ernest Hemingway’s refusal to refer to Alice by name. The two disliked one another, perhaps divided by each having a love for Gertrude. However, Alice had her; Ernest didn’t. The play is a brief meander on the relationship of Gertrude and Alice and their pantheon of friends. It is presented by Theatre Rhinoceros with love and confidence, and it charms from beginning to end.

This piece was selected by Artistic Director John Fisher as a vehicle for Kathryn Wood who had long been drawn to the inter-war life of Paris. Fisher and Wood’s fingerprints touch all aspects of the production from co-directing to scenic design, with Wood also designing the costumes and playing the lead role. It is a role that she is made for, and she delivers with great brio.

The play is non-linear and episodic, with Gertrude deceased near the outset but still communicating with Alice. Together, they recount the glories as well as the heartbreaks of lives defined by Culture. Although Gertrude’s vocation was writing, she is perhaps better remembered for her contributions to modern art. As a seminal patron, especially of Matisse and Picasso, she did much to promote their paintings as well as others of the early twentieth century. Her salon was beehive for intellectuals including the aforementioned as well as Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many more.

The salon was covered with some of the finest paintings of the day, and in Alice’s coinage were “dollarless.” At one level, she could only imagine their evocativeness rather than their monetary value, but when it was necessary to finance publication of Gertrude’s books, she monetized what she needed off the walls. Those walls have been memorialized in photographs, and recently represented literally in Woody Allen’s movie “Midnight in Paris.” For this production, Kirsten Tradowsky has cleverly created the sense of the salon by mimicking a number of the hung works on unframed canvasses that are strung on wire and moved and removed as called for by the action of the play.

Elaine Jennings as Alice matches Wood for command of her role. Wood’s Gertrude is constantly beaming and self confident, but Jennings matches up to her every inch of the way. Wood relaxes open and uninhibited in armchair with her legs often splayed under a plain long skirt. Jennings is dressed in black and sits ramrod straight on a desk chair. What photographic images history provides us of Alice are even less flattering than those of Gertrude, but Jenning’s gives her a brilliance and a place in the sun that she must have had in order to thrive in the setting she did.

Gertrude declared herself a genius and noted that geniuses couldn’t possibly take care of themselves and need partners like Alice to do the necessaries for them. In another of Alice’s coinages, she said that she was dependented to Gertrude. Gertrude couldn’t decide whether the word was good or bad, but she said it was definitely delicious. It is somewhat amusing that having resided in Gertrude’s shadow, Alice’s name would be so much a part of pop culture. In addition to the “Autobiography” written about rather than by her, she did write the “Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” in 1956, which became a best seller. It is most remembered for her “hashish fudge,” more commonly known as hash brownies. As a result of that countercultural recipe, her name is even in the title of the 1968 Peter Sellers’ movie “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas.”

Some vignettes in playwright Win Wells’ script are prosaic, but all are engaging. One scene that raises questions of the women’s sanity is that they remained in France through the Nazi occupation. Furthermore, they were required to billet German military officers from time to time. Of being Jewish, lesbian, American, or purveyors of “decadent” art, it’s not clear which could have been the quickest trigger to concentration camps or summary execution. Through good fortune and probably connections, they would live to see liberty again.

Several other characters put in brief appearances, from Hemingway to a German major to a midwestern U.S. journalist. The audience must suspend a little extra disbelief, as each is played by a young female, Haley Bertelsen. With only minor costume changes to represent the various roles, and no attempt to disguise her person, she adeptly conveys their essences.

As the play is short, uses one simple set, and has only three actors, it might be considered a “small” play. But it is highly literate, revealing, and engaging, and it is well presented. For local audiences, there is the special attraction that it is about two Bay Area women, Gertrude having grown up in Oakland and Alice in San Francisco. Some people familiar with Gertrude’s quote when returning to Oakland that “There’s no there there” believe that she was disparaging the city. The quote is not in the play, but was mentioned by John Fisher in his pre-play talk. The “there” she was referring to was her home, which had been razed. So, take that, Berkeley, with your “Here” and “There” sculpture on your border with Oakland.

“Gertrude Stein and a Companion” by Win Wells is produced by Theatre Rhinoceros and plays at the Eureka Theater, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco, through January 8. 2017.