Arts & Events

EYE FROM THE AISLE: Henne’s MESMERIC REVELATION at Central Works at Berkeley City Club —exquisite and challenging!

By John A. McMullen II
Thursday March 01, 2012 - 03:21:00 PM
Theo Black (front) and Joe Jordan
Jay Yamada
Theo Black (front) and Joe Jordan

MESMERIC REVELATION, written and directed by Aaron Henne, is a special play of intellectual depth and exquisite performance now at Central Works at the Berkeley City Club. It is appropriate that Aaron Henne should present this profound and concentrated 80-minute argument in this special community. It might not play in Peoria, but for those theatre-goers who have a sense of intellectual history and are concerned about the current cultural battles, this is a must-see. 

It is a decade before the French Revolution. Anton Mesmer has been summoned before the French royally sanctioned scientific accrediting committee, and is being interrogated by Antoine Lavoisier. Mesmer’s theory and practice emphasize the movement of life energy through distinct channels in the body. It would fit in naturally with many homeopathic and Eastern medical philosophies current in the Bay Area. Lavoisier argues for empirical, repeatable, demonstrable results, akin to what we now deem the scientific method, albeit in its inchoate phase. When the basis of one’s world is a belief in God and that the King has been chosen by God, and the committee is sanctioned by the King, scientific inquiry is easily sullied and questionable. Sullied science is not that hard to imagine: remember when “W” was in office? 

Mesmer wants to put on a demonstration of his method, but is stifled by Lavoisier, who only wishes to cross-examine and to limit the proceedings to a Socratic dialectic. 

Mesmer is Austrian, which is where the unpopular Queen Marie Antoinette is from. His treatment is becoming influential, but the royal family fears and distrusts his practices. 

Henne’s fascinating prose takes on an almost poetic resonance when delivered by these two accomplished Shakespearean actors Joe Jordan (Mesmer) and Theo Black (Lavoisier). Exceedingly tall, elegantly thin, costumed impeccably by Tammy Berlin in jabots, frockcoats, lace-trimmings and breeches, they are subtle and graceful in their movements, and both their physiognomies and comportment transport you to Enlightenment Paris.  

The set is perfectly symbolic and emblematic: one ornate chair. Who is “in the chair” is essential to any courtroom drama, and serves the reversals well. This is an exemplary display of the wonderment of simple theatre of the imagination where the words of the playwright, a perfectly attended costume, and the abilities of the players can transport you. There are accoutrements that set the stage: above the ornate hearth in the 50 x 20 room that is the theatre in the “Little Castle” of the City Club hangs a portrait of Marie Antoinette with a set of Encyclopedia on the mantle with fleur de lys bookends which are in turn bookended by gold candlesticks with lit candles. In the three niches atop the wall we find a miniature human skeleton with a magnifying glass positioned upon it for inspection, a miniature telescope, and some colored aqueous solutions in decanters and beakers. The preshow Baroque opera assists in setting it in a world where form and rules held sway. 

The third player is the lighting. Designed by Gary Graves and operated with symphonic timing by Gregory Scharpen, the lighting enhances the drama as if dancing with the players and is almost hypnotic in its effect. The two actors often nearly dance the parts, sometimes in a fluid pas de deux, next in a nearly jarring apache. The sound design and operation by Scharpen expressionistically mirror actions from psychic collisions to Mesmer’s impassioned playing of his mellifluous glass harmonica 

Mesmer’s method was part hypnotism; his thesis is the need for release from blockages. This is a century before Freud, who likewise used hypnotism to unblock his patients. In the major reversal, Lavoisier accedes to undergoing a treatment by Mesmer there and then, and secrets are unlocked which takes the play from the Apollonian world of thought to the dark recesses of the Dionysiac subconscious and repressed childhood sexual memories. 

The mind reels at the implications this short drama invokes. Their dialogue, set in the days before that Revolution, resonates today with the division between workers who have little time for deep thought and those in power, in the politics from Santorum to Sharia, and what future culture clashes might bode. 

I vituperatively panned Henne’s last play at Central Works, “A Man’s Home,” about Kafka. My opinion and esteem of his abilities have reversed; in this effort, he writes with the acumen and talent of Stoppard. If you liked Tolstoy’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” or Central Work’s Gary Graves’ “The Prince,” or Stoppard’s “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor,” or “Copenhagen,” then this is for you.  

Henne’s inspiration for the play was a three-thousand word short story by Edgar A. Poe which you can get through Google or from the Central Works site. It provides a little background, but is perhaps better read after seeing the play.

I seldom wait at the stage door to speak to the players in shows that I will review, but their performances were so outstanding, I was possessed to so wait. I asked them about rehearsals, and when they told me that changes were being made through tech rehearsal (a few days before), it further raised my estimation of their abilities. In 80-minutes, speaking at 180 wpm, consider that each speaks the number of words ordinarily spoken in an entire act of most modern plays. 

I do caution you that it is not fare for postprandial entertainment: you might want to have your steak and martini after you attend, for the pace at which the banter and ideas ensue demands your active attention and intellectual participation. 


MESMERIC REVELATION written and directed by Aaron Henne 

A Central Works Method World Premiere 

at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley 

Through March 18. 

Costumes by Tammy Berlin, lights by Gary Graves, sound design by Gregory Scharpen, and stage management by Reg Clay. 

WITH: Theo Black and Joe Jordan 

John A. McMullen II is a member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. E J Dunne edits.