Arts theater review

Sweet dreams are made of this: wonder

Alan Lightman’s surreal Einstein‘s Dreams is adapted for the theatre.

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Alexandra Vincentini Boles from Wellesley, Alexa Mae Garcia ’17, and Sabrine Ahmed Iqbal ’17 perform in Einstein’s Dreams.
Photo credit: Jonathan Sachs

Einstein’s Dreams
Presented by MIT Theater Arts and MIT Dramashop
Book written by Alan Lightman
Adapted by Wes Savick
Directed by Neerja Aggarwal
Kresge Little Theatre
Apr. 13–15, 20–22, 2017

A clock ticks. A woman smells a yellow rose. A second woman joins hands with her. They waltz together, clearly in love. A third woman greets the audience. The first and second women love and grieve; one of them grows ill and dies. The third woman returns to comfort the first. The clock rewinds; a woman smells a yellow rose.

Their lives are both encumbered and liberated by time — the three women cannot escape their tragic cycle — but none more than Albert Einstein, who cannot escape his own ideas. Tortured physicist Einstein works to finish his paper, and consequently, Einstein leaves an indelible legacy in physics — the theory of special relativity. Physics might be founded upon mathematics, but this fictional Einstein also dreams of the metaphysical and the metaphorical.

At the play’s core lies a great tragedy. Genius, it seems, demands sacrifice; Einstein’s obsessive work ethic drives away friends and strains his relationship with his wife. His health wanes as he favors work over food and drink. Here we have a man so exhilarated by the nature of time that his work becomes his life. When Einstein finally relents and goes fishing with his friend, his friend admits: Einstein looks terrible.

But terrible is a far cry from the show — the choreographed actresses, the surreal lighting and projections, and the haunting musical score will enchant you. The three women, Alexandra Vincentini Boles from Wellesley, Alexa Mae Garcia ’17, and Sabrine Ahmed Iqbal ’17, play all of the roles: Einstein and his psyche, his wife, the typist, the narrator, and the personifications of time. Like energy and matter, they switch between ideas and human beings.

As if in an acausal universe, we witness a series of events, randomly unfolding, moment by moment unlinked one after the other. But this is theatre, and director Neerja Aggarwal G must tie these unlinked events cohesively. Aggarwal frames Einstein’s dreams for the observer in segments that prioritize atmosphere over plot: abstract thought experiments of time intertwine with Einstein’s life, breaking and coming together again.

Spectacular moments of choreography and lighting hold our attention. In one moment in the midst of darkness, strobe lights flash; the faces of the three women seem to freeze in time; we witness paused expressions changing intermittently. In another, two women become clocks, moving their arms like clock hands. Projections are used behind the set: the bookshelves of Einstein’s workspace, black and white videos, budding green leaves. Time ebbs and flows like poetry, relentless.

From Einstein’s Dreams, I took away less of an understanding of time and more of a mutual recognition, less of Einstein’s biography and more of his fiction. Yet the spirit of discovery and the thought experiments remain true to any scientist. Curiosity is an inherently human trait, and the explorative creation of this production mirrors Einstein’s own.

Before the show, audience members are led to a room with a typewriter — a functioning one that we could play around with — and the planning materials for the show. Drawn diagrams, set design notes, books, and other plans are all displayed. The audience is let in on an intimate secret, held close to the creative process, then to the stage and entrenched in a series of dreams; the clock ticks on.