Lovesong of the Electric Bear

Photo-Stan Barouh | Tara Giordano as Porgy Bear and
Alex Draper as a young Alan Turing

Reviewed: July 19, 2010
Venue: Atlantic Stage 2
Running Time: 2 hours, with intermission
Run: July 6 - August 1, 2010

Written by: Snoo Wilson
Directed by: Cheryl Faraone
Scenic Designer: Christina Galvez
Lighting Designer: Hallie Zieselman
Furniture Designer: Eleanor Kahn
Costume Designer: Danielle Nieves
Projection Design: Ross Bell
Sound Design: Jimmy Wong

Produced by: Potomac Theatre Project
Production Manager: Hallie Zieselman
Production Stage Managers: Alex Mark, Lisa McGinn

Alex Draper as Alan Turing
Tara Giordano as Porgy Bear
Alex Cranmer as Blackwood/Turing Sr/Cornish/Sergeant
Peter B. Schmitz as Churchill/Davis//Barman/Greenbaum/Dilly Knox
Nina Silver as Clemmie/Mother/Judge
Cassidy Boyd as Christopher Morcom/Joan
Willie McKay as Kjell/Undergrad 1/Rejewski/Arnold
Claire Graves as Nurse/Fortune Teller/ Undergrad2/Ylena
Lilli Stein as Bronwyn/Varia
Martina Bonolis as Old Southern Woman/ Hallam/Man

To Animate the Inanimate

As part of its summer repertory series, the Potomac Theatre Project presents Snoo Wilson's Lovesong of the Electric Bear, the theatrical version of the movie industry's "biopic," about the brilliant and misaligned Alan Turing: mathematical whiz-kid, World War II code-breaker, pioneer in artificial intelligence and computer science -- and homosexual prosecuted for "gross indecency" who eventually took his own life.

The play moves in a pretty straightforward biographical line, narrated and guided by Turing's childhood toy, a bear named Porgy, and the picture we get of Turing is of a childish genius, unequipped by common etiquette (he thinks saying "hello" back to people who greet him is a waste of time) who, but for the prejudice of his society against his sexuality, would have produced even greater accomplishments than he did.

Wilson paints on a big canvas, so there is much theatricality in the play, beginning with the bear in the title, played by Tara Giordano in a torso-suit of shaggy brown material, topped with ears and outsized paws and feet. She interacts with Turing, guides him on his adventures, admonishes him when he errs, and dies with him when he commits suicide.

Scenes move briskly from boyhood to college to his work as a war-time breaker of the German code to his experiments with computer technology, sidetracking along the way for emotional dalliances (with males and females), philosophical discussions, and self-doubting. The rest of the cast play multiple characters, and at times it feels a bit like the costume changes in The Mystery of Irma Vep, with people sliding offstage as one character and emerging moments later as another.

However, Snoo's presentational style does not give Turing, played with great skill by Alex Draper, much time to build emotional connections with the swirl of others around him since it's always time to be getting on to the next point. This also forces Porgy to voice long stretches of exposition and, at one point late in the play, a stream of prophet-like doom-saying about the revenge of the gods for choices Turing wants to make in his life that, while poetic in its efforts, sounds off-key and a little tedious.

Director Cheryl Faraone has handled Snoo's scene-making well, moving things briskly and interestingly along, aided by Hallie Zieselman's lighting, Ross Bell's projections, and Jimmy Wong's sound design, with its mix of dance-hall and popular music and sound effects.

Turing's life was indeed an interesting ride, and the humiliation he underwent in 1952 for his sexuality, very similar to what Oscar Wilde suffered 57 years earlier, has its destructive legacy in our own culture's continuing assault against homosexuality. But by focusing on the biographical, Mr. Wilson misses out on the excitement of the intellectual, the stuff that really drove Turing.

We never really learn the "how" of the code-breaking or get to explore the dramatic possibilities of Turing's observation that there is no defensible line between the machine and the human (leading to the famous Turing test). We are meant to feel pathos at the death of this man, which we do when he ingests his cyanide by eating a red apple (a reference to Snow White, one of his favorite movies). But pathos is not dramatic, and that's the one thing that the play lacks.

Still, Lovesong of the Electric Bear is intelligent theatre expertly produced, a rare enough commodity these days, and is most definitely worth checking out.

Michael Bettencourt