Charles Darwin almost did not join HMS Beagle's round-the-world voyage as the official naturalist. Professing a fear of blood, dissection and taxidermy — not to mention never having been to sea — he was an unlikely candidate for the role. But the strength of his quest for scientific knowledge prevailed, thanks to an appreciation of Alexander von Humboldt's descriptions of foreign lands shared by the Beagle's captain, Robert FitzRoy, who was in all other aspects Darwin's polar opposite.
In After Darwin, now playing at Redwood Curtain Theatre, we follow the intertwined lives of these very different men through the Beagle's five-year passage and its 30-year aftermath. Nothing new there, you might think. But playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker's interpretation takes us into a different dimension; we experience the story not only through the eyes of an emigré Bulgarian theatrical director and an African-American playwright in late 20th-century London, but also through the two actors playing FitzRoy and Darwin in this multi-layered play-within-a-play.
We first meet FitzRoy (Jeremy Webb) and Darwin (Scott Osborn) in 1865, six years after the publication of On the Origin of Species. By this time, Darwin's scientific beliefs have fully solidified. But FitzRoy's religious fundamentalism and underlying fatalism are stronger than ever; brandishing a straight razor, he cries out "Forgive me, God, for what I have done, for what I am about to do — if you are there." (FitzRoy did indeed cut his throat that same year.)
Through the miracle of theatrical time travel, we then find ourselves transported back to 1831, as young Darwin hires on with FitzRoy. Suddenly, a voice calls out from the front of the audience and we discover that we are, in fact, watching two actors rehearse a play about Darwin and FitzRoy. Ian, a veteran stage actor who chose not to pursue a film career, has thrown himself into the role of FitzRoy with the desperation of a man who feels he's in danger of being left behind. But for Tom, his fellow actor, playing Darwin is just a convenient job he makes clear he will walk from if something better comes along. Ignoring the director's demand that he read Darwin in order to fully understand the character, he chooses instead to borrow the video so he can "watch the nice animals and skip the pigeons."
Webb gives a masterful performance as the tormented FitzRoy, a man on a mission to civilize the natives with silverware, antimacassars, baby bonnets and a large dose of Christian piety. Masked by headaches he blames on "the devil at work," the inherited madness he fears lurks just below the surface. Ian, too, is driven by the fear of failure, terrified that he will become a footnote in the history of acting just as FitzRoy had a mere supporting role to Darwin's achievements.
In his Redwood Curtain debut, Osborn infectiously conveys Darwin's enthusiasm and growing confidence in his research as he develops his theories of evolution and natural selection, challenged by FitzRoy's insistence that extinction happened because there was no more room in the ark. As Tom, he's convincingly superficial, opportunist, willing to sacrifice others at the altar of his ambition — and devastated when Ian finds a way to thwart that ambition.
Both actors move smoothly between their two personas. In the preview, both occasionally used their roles as actors playing actors to cover hesitancy in line delivery but this will undoubtedly disappear as they become more comfortable.
As the director in the play, Andrea Zvaleko, last seen as the Street Singer in Threepenny Opera, does an excellent job bringing to life the shrill overconfidence of someone who has been living a lie and must now face the consequences as her carefully constructed world crumbles. She also serves as an emotional foil as she exhorts the very proper British actors to embrace male bonding. As Lawrence, the African-American playwright, newcomer Sadiki Koos seems rather disconnected, an impression not helped by heavy-handed references to slavery and other "moral compass" issues in the lines Wertenbaker gives him.
Director Craig Benson has made a valiant attempt to create a coherent whole from this complex piece, but it may take a week or two for the production to "settle in." He does make effective use of Jared Sorenson's set and lighting design as we travel back and forth through time, with contemporaneous illustrations projected onto the sail-like backdrop, and Jo Kuzelka has done a fabulous job assembling the 19th century props. Kudos must also go to dialect coaches Bernadette Cheyne and Richard Woods — as a Brit, I often find myself wincing at American actors' English accents, but not on this occasion.
The play itself is the biggest problem with this production — it's a six-part PBS drama squeezed into two hours of live theater. While amoral Tom clearly carries the "survival of the fittest" message into today's world, many of the more interesting parallels between the characters and their situations (Russian imperialism, immigration, risk versus security, the future of film and theater) remain frustratingly underexplored.
After Darwin continues at Redwood Curtain Theatre on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. through Oct. 1, with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on Sept. 25.
North Coast Repertory Theatre brings back cohabitation comedy with The Odd Couple (Female Version) starting on Sept. 16 through Oct. 8, with 8 p.m. showings on Fridays and Saturdays, Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Sept. 25 and Oct. 2, and an 8 p.m. performance on Thursday, Oct. 6. Call 442 6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.