The science of retrospect, the staging of histories

Chaos Theory Theatre returns with Einstein’s Gift

Kevin Doe plays a young Albert Einstein in Chaos Theory’s latest production.
Kevin Doe plays a young Albert Einstein in Chaos Theory’s latest production.

For a young company devoted to creating theatre that is both ecologically sound and thought-provoking, Chaos Theory Theatre Company’s decision to perform Vern Thiessen’s Einstein’s Gift as their second ever production is particularly apt.

Set amongst the havoc of the First and Second World Wars, the play—despite its title—is about the life of a lesser known German scientist, Fritz Haber, as told through the perspective of Albert Einstein. Haber won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1918 for inventing synthetic ammonia, a chemical that was used in the fertilization of plants and saved thousands of people from starvation at the turn of the century. But he also oversaw the development and use of chlorine gas in World War I. This set of split accomplishments bodes for the sort of character playwrights dream of.

Nobody likes a moral quandary quite like a dramatist and Einstein’s Gift, which deals with matters of faith and nationality as well as with the ethics of science, is full of such quagmires.

The play’s themes are almost too big for the tiny venue—the Red Room in Kingston Hall—but once you get past the pitiful performance space and squeaky floor-boards, you find a gem of a production, something that is tiny, sparkling and true.

That being said, there is something that is not quite right with the performances of Einstein and Haber, played by Kevin Doe and Matthew McFetridge respectively, in the first act of the play. Doe’s reserved portrayal of Einstein the pacifist, while obviously deliberate, is at times cloyingly underplayed. Meanwhile McFetridge portrays an arrogant, self-assured and ultimately unlikeable Haber. This could be due, though, to how the character of Fritz Haber is written rather than to McFetridge’s skills as an actor. All is forgiven and then some by the end of the second act, though, when these two men, in a scene where Einstein presents Haber with a Jewish prayer shawl, actually made me cry—an extremely difficult feat considering the high level of cynicism I subscribe to.

As Haber’s two wives, Kate Icely (Clara, wife one) and Alexsandra Marzocca (Lotta, wife two) are more consistent in their delivery. Icely’s beautifully natural and nuanced performance as Haber’s troubled first wife is particularly noteworthy.

Director Marianne Vander Dussen has created some wonderful moments in the play, notably the two dancing scenes, her use of chalk drawings on the floor, and the scene she creates where Haber and Einstein sit eating sandwiches together like two little boys in a playground. However, at times, her tendency to manipulate audience emotions feels a little too easy. I am referring to the bloody soldier who comes crawling onto the stage at the end of Act 1 and the unfurling of the Nazi flag at the beginning of Act 2. However, the more nuanced and creative scenes prove Vander Dussen has a bright future as a director ahead of her. Like the scientist this play is about, Einstein’s Gift is far from perfect but there is immense value in it as well. In fact I urge anyone who can spare the time away from studying and essay-writing during this crucial crunch period to come out and see this production. It probably can’t ripple the very fabric of society, but it just may ripple your soul.

Einstein’s Gift will be playing in the Red Room (Kingston Hall) until November 15 and will resume on November 19, finishing on the 22nd.

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