Fresh Eyes on MAGELLANICA, 1st Installment
Almost exactly a year ago, we – the Artists Rep staff – became enthralled by E.M. Lewis’s play, MAGELLANICA. An epic exploration of science, truth, cultural politics, and survival, this play set us spinning with excitement. Set in Antarctica in 1986 – when we first understood that human actions were damaging the ozone layer, and that we must act together to avert global disaster – it’s a story that feels urgent and necessary today. But aside from relevance and moral heft, the play is a crackin’ good yarn! The science is thrilling, but really, what’s Huffington hiding? Why can Halsted only sleep with her back against the wall? Who will win the battle for truth, the American or Russian scientist? Does Todor understand that he is dead? Is he dead?
It’s a big story – and it takes longer to tell than most: almost six hours with intermissions and dinner break. Is it worth it? We think the answer is yes, Yes, YES!
This week we began the journey. Our Fresh Eyes on the project, Elizabeth E. Tavares and Matthew Minicucci, joined us for the first rehearsal, when the designers discussed their ideas and the actors read the play together for the first time. Here are their thoughts from the day:
Hc Svnt Dracones
“Here be Dragons,” the scrawled Latin on the Lenox Globewarns us. Here is a place you know nothing about, and perhaps there’s nothing more dangerous than that. In truth, the rehearsal room at the Artists Repertory Theatre is a place I know nothing about. Though, instead of dragons, I found a tremendous number of people—warm, and welcoming—sitting in thick plastic chairs, watching intently as a collaborative euphony of voices created a new world.
And creation is, in fact, what we witnessed, in two very distinct ways. The first was a process that I, as a poet and a writer who has worked and has been taught to work in some isolation, found endlessly fascinating. Each constituent part of the play design, from lighting to practicals, costumes to sound, voice to accents and inflection, is chaired by a specific expert. Each of these experts gave their “pitch,” complete with an audio/visual presentation w/ drawings, models, pictures, or other samples, depending on the genre.
I confess I was at rapt attention for the entirety of these presentations, which lasted nearly an hour. But I was particularly drawn in by lighting designer Carl Faber’s presentation on how lighting can be used to create edges and separation–in soliloquies or scenes of interpersonal strife—or softness and connection—as in his idea for rounded diffused light for scenes in the “common room.”
The idea of a play centered around eight characters attempting to “winter-over” in an Antarctic science station was one I was fascinated by in a “man vs. nature” context. However, Faber’s discussion and presentation on small tweaks to the luminosity and direction of light, and how that would change the audience’s interaction with how connectedour characters would be, helped illuminate (pun intended) both the collaboration necessary for our characters to survive, and the collaboration necessary for E. M. Lewis’s beautiful playtext to thrive.
The second distinct creation I witness was a table-reading by the cast of the play in its entirety. Broken into five parts, the play has a running time of around six hours, and it took the better part of that to read through the text. Hearing those distinct voices, still very much in their infancy for each actor, start to pingfeedback and responses was like being at the genesis moment for each character. And, perhaps, even more than that, to see a creation story emerge in the content itself, which–without revealing any spoilers–struck me as an examination of the connection between individual trauma and national identity. Or, it occurred to me later, as Elizabeth and I were driving home, perhaps trauma as national identity.
I’m excited about continuing the process of being Fresh Eyes on this production, and to see how so many constituent parts come together as cartographers of Lewis’s text and vision. Going back to the Lenox globe and its warnings about what dragons might wait for us in the unknown, I want to leave you with a little more Latin: “secare,” to cut. Know that coming to this show, and come you must, will involve you in the drawing of that map; not of land masses or oceans, but a map of these characters’ scars, and of our own. I can already start to see their secant—that faded line that always intersects two lonely points on a curve. I can’t wait to see what connections are in store for us next time.
ELIZABETH E. TAVARES
Eight Voices in a Snow Globe
The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about—clouds—daffodils—waterfalls—what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in—these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks.
— Tom Stoppard’s ARCADIA
MAGELLANICA is a play brimming with my two favorite kinds of questions. The eight characters who head as far south as possible for the winter of 1986 have little nationally, linguistically, and even intellectually in common. Yet, you are aware from even the first table-read of this world premiere that these very disparate voices, trapped together for more than eight months in an ostensible snow globe, share the same interrogative spirit: What do you mean by x? What’s the word for —?
There is something Shakespearean about this play beyond the allusions to RICHARD III and HAMLET flurrying amidst the dialogue. Local playwright E. M. Lewis uses the logic of what her colleagues in the Renaissance would have called “theatrum mundi” to structure the world of this play: man is the universe writ small as the universe is man writ large. (They called Shakespeare’s playhouse the Globe, after all.) It’s that thing Neil Degrasse Tyson likes to quote so much of Carl Sagan:
The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.
In the world of this play, representatives of all the major nations pushing climate change research forward in the ‘80s—from an English glaciologist to a Chinese-American physicist—sit around a crummy dining table eating a Norwegian ornithologist’s take on “porridge of oats.” The Bulgarian cartographer is spotted frequently admiring a 1731 spheroid and then putting “the world back in his pocket.” There’s a hole in the sky. There’s a hole in the back-up generator.
From the opening-day design pitches by the craftspeople, it is clear one of the challenges is going to get audiences past mythologies about Antarctica: a stable wasteland, nature’s widescreen on which to project the Aurora Australis. As the cartographer puts it:
We treat this world as if it is endless, but it is not endless. We have mapped its circumference, we have found its top and bottom, we have traveled past the edges of the maps until there were no more edges. This is the last edge…It will be the winter of our --
Discontent? Understanding? Accomplishment? Perhaps unlike any other continent, Antarctica is a place to which we collectively turn to read our fortunes in its atmospheric spectacles of shifting glaciers and dancing lights. I wonder how this play, relying on a gradually evolving design palate as much as the text, might teach us new ways of conceiving the South Pole.
Again, RICHARD III may yet prove allusively important for MAGELLANICA. The second part of that famous line is oft-forgot: “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York.” He is not referring to himself as the “son” of the house of York, but to a spectacular eclipse staged in the prequel, 2 HENRY VI:Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun;Not separated with the racking clouds,But sever’d in a pale clear-shining sky.See, see! they join, embrace, and seem to kiss,As if they vow’d some league inviolable:Now are they but one lamp, one light, one sun.In this the heaven figures some event.
Richard’s brothers, the other suns/sons, reply: “‘Tis wondrous strange, the like yet never heard of. I think it cites us, brother, to the field…join our lights together and over-shine the earth as this the world.” Likewise, late in MAGELLANICA, the two debating atmospheric scientists, trapped at an intellectual and personal impasse, call up to the unending night sky: “We would like from you a small sign, if we should confess our real true things to each other.”
Ask for a sign, and you just might get an aurora. Or, what’s the word for —?