‘Mesmeric Revelation’ at Central Works fails to fascinate

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 2/5 Stars » Somewhat Engaging )

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Central Works is a theatre company with an impressive reputation and a fine history of successful productions. When I reserved my seat for Mesmeric Revelation, I was excited to be seeing this company for the first time. Alas, although I saw evidence of excellence in many aspects of the production, it was, overall, a disappointment.

Let’s look at what’s excellent first. The theatre site itself is a marvel, an intimate room with fifty seats located in the Berkeley City Club, an architectural treat designed by the great Julia Morgan. I felt like a member of the royal court attending theatre in 18th century France; it is a truly unique setting. For Mesmeric Revelation the space has been used well, lit with candles, decorated with exotic looking scientific paraphernalia of another era, hauntingly eccentric. So far so good.

The two actors (Theo Black as Antoine Lavoisier and Joe Jordan as Dr. Anton Mesmer) establish a striking physical presence, in beautifully rendered costumes by Tammy Berlin. They speak elegantly and move gracefully. The creation of mood, the musical enhancement, the props, the dance like motions, the spookiness: all of this is remarkable. At times, it is quite exciting and even thrilling. But those thrills are intermittent and are not nearly enough to fill the ninety minutes of performance, sans intermission.

Joe Jordan (in back) as Anton Mesmer and Theo Black as Antoine Lavoisier in Central Work's production of Aaron Henne's "Mesmeric Revelation". Photo credit: Jay Yamada.

The premise of the play is interesting. At the Royal Academy of Science, Academy director Antoine Lavoisier challenges Anton Mesmer to offer scientific evidence of his theories. Mesmer, of course, was the developer of “animal magnetism” which ultimately became known as hypnotism and whose eventual influence, via the early training of Sigmund Freud, on modern psychological science can scarcely be overestimated. In his day he was controversial, and viewed by many if not most of the scientific establishment as a mere charlatan.

In the notes provided in the press kit, the play is characterized as a dramatic clash between Science and Mysticism.

It is easy to see why director and playwright Aaron Henne was attracted to this material.

Unfortunately, the piece does not succeed. The problem seems to be two fold. First, although the situation is riveting, and the actors performances (particular the physical gestures) are at times startling and original, the arguments are unclear and the intellectual content is more confusing than stimulating. This sort of “debate play” can certainly work well (Peter Schaffer‘s Amadeus and Equus are famous examples), but in this case understanding has been sacrificed as the bulk of Mr. Henne’s attentions seem to have been given rather to the mood of the piece than to the clarity of its thought.

While there is much to commend in the actors’ performances, they are, for this reviewer, fatally flawed in not differentiating the various moods and attitudes sufficiently. All is loud and monotonous. This changes somewhat when the hypnotic trance is achieved, but the change is too little too late. Perhaps the director thought by maintaining a more monotonous level of volume and emotion prior to the trance that the transition would be more dramatic, but by the time the change came, this audience member had lost interest.

In the end, some excellent elements —an intriguing premise, skillful acting, extraordinary atmosphere and remarkable physical presence—fail to coalesce into a satisfying production.

Given the ambition, reputation and obvious commitment and talent of this company, I look forward to the rest of the season with interest and high expectations.

Mesmeric Revelation continues through March 18. For further information click here.

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“Mesmeric Revelation”, a play written and directed by Aaron Henne, produced by Central Works. Costumes: Tammy Berlin. Lights: Gary Graves. Sound: Gregory Scharpen.

Anton Mesmer: Joe Jordan. Antoine Lavoisier: Theo Black.

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