The thing about the cold war was that it was like that monster under the bed, except it was real. You didn’t ever actually see it, but it was always there. It was scary, and there wasn’t anything you could do about it. And if it were ever unleashed it would be the end of everything as we know it.
For me the cold war, as a mythic cycle, starts with “Panic In The Year Zero” and ends with “Red Dawn.” So from about 1962 to 1984. And of course in between those years there were endless portrayals of nuclear apocalypses in novels, TV (Twilight Zone, Outer Limits etc.) and movies (“Dr. Strangelove” being the favorite I suppose. There was also the famous “Daisy” commercial, courtesy of LBJ.)
Dystopian fantasies abounded during the cold war. And you didn’t even need a nuclear holocaust — ordinary things like birds could suffice (“The Birds“.)
It’s a wonder how anyone got any sleep. But they did, and in the mid-1980s it seemed like things improved, and then the whole idea of WWIII just seemed to evaporate.
Well, not so much. It’s back. B Street Theater’s production of Basil Kreimendahl’s “We’re Gonna Be OK” revisits the era of nuclear war, bomb shelters, and the end of civilization as we know it. Or knew it — because it seems so far away, and somehow what’s on the stage isn’t really us. But it was.
The play stars Dana Brooke (“Mag”), Jason Kuykendall (“Sul”), Stephanie Altholz (“Deanna”), Elisabeth Nunziato (“Leena”), Dave Pierini (“Efran”), and Doug Harris (“Jake”).
The cast is superb, the stage design was huge fun, lighting and sound were spot on (no pun intended.)
The story concerns two families living side-by-side in townhouses. One family is a bit younger, the other a bit older. Both families have teenage children. Efran (older) wants to build a bomb shelter for the two families, and he needs Sul (younger) to do the labor and build the thing.
Pierini plays Efran as a friendly, overly chatty, somewhat overbearing nice guy, and Kuykendall plays Sul as a somewhat subdued, thoughtful and resolute nice guy.
Brooke plays Mag as sincere, demure, sensible, while Nunziato plays Leena as intelligent, forthright, and capable. The teenagers Deanna (Altholz) and Jake (Harris) are portrayed as younger versions of the adults but with an adolescent sensibility that creates conflict and sexual tension.
These actors (with the exception of Harris) have all worked on the same stage for a long time, they are sensitive to each other, their timing is excellent, and nobody missed a beat.
To visualize what the playwright did here, just think of those 1950s family shows, like “Father Knows Best” or “Ozzie and Harriet“, add a portion of Edward Albee and a dash of Eugene O’Neill. In other words, expose all the eccentricities, the neurosis, the self-absorption that comes with material success, and there you have it.
But these are nice people, right? Absolutely. Which is (I think) the very point the playwright is making. We’re all thin-skinned, and all is takes is a little prick here and there and we bleed.
Once the bomb shelter is built, driven by Efran’s constant fear and loathing of cavemen and cultural decay, they must enter it and explore the possibilities of survival.
Efran’s pathological fear of cavemen, played for laughs, drives all the other characters to react to his manic bullying, also played for laughs. In the meantime the teenagers do what teenagers do, which is explore procreation.
Now right about when you get to T minus 30 seconds (“T” being the end of the play) one might ask haven’t we seen all this before? And yes that’s true, but it is funny to see Ozzie and Harriet coming apart the the seams — but what’s next? Where can you go with this play?
Ambiguous ending, that’s where.
So here’s the thing: 1950 culture, and the people therein, seem so far away from “now” that it’s almost like watching Tartuffe. A 17th century farce, harmless, let’s laugh and go home. Of course there are some moral lessons (or maybe moral lesions) in there, but it doesn’t feel very dangerous. So yes 1950 might as well be 1660 to most people, it’s that far away.
Or not. Because the lesson of all plays seems to be that people are eternally people. Efran’s nearly tangible fear is that warm and fuzzy will only get you so far. All that neighborliness is just for show. Once we rip the facade off Sul and Efran and Leena and Mag they are like snarling animals, fearful and territorial. And the teenagers aren’t, not quite, but they will be, once their parents stop feeding them. Or at least in Efran’s mind. The play never gets quite that far.
Does that bother you? That we’re always that close to savagery? Not me, because I’ve seen “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and I’ve internalized it and I’m good to go.
So what, you ask? What’s the problem? Here’s what bothered me: I’m not the type of guy who will survive the apocalypse. I think food comes from the grocery store, and if the store is closed, I’ll starve. I don’t like being reminded of that. (Virginia Woolf notwithstanding.)
But give me a second here and I’ll put on my big boy pants.
OK. I’m OK. Everything’s fine.
Anyway, by using an ambiguous ending the playwright forces the audience to confront the question of “what happened” and face our own fear of the caveperson.
And once that question is asked the play serves as a contemporary reflection of the angst that many people in today’s world suffer during a loss of culture. What happens when all the trust-signals, all the social artifacts that placate us and steer us away from destruction are no longer in place? Even the perception that there might be a loss of culture can drive people to extremes.
No humans or animals were harmed during production, and the theater is free of radiation. At least for now.
“We’re Gonna Be Okay” by Basil Kreimendahl is onstage August 7, 2018 September 9, 2018
A Living Universe: notes and comments
Sometime back in the late 1980s, at the suggestion of a friend, I read a book called “The Dancing Wu Li Masters,” which got me started reading popular books on the science of physics. I followed that up by reading “The Tao of Physics.” Over the years I kept up the pace and continued to read books on quantum physics, most recently “Reality Is Not What It Seems” and “Anxiety and the Equation.” (Also Stephen Hawking, etc.)
One of the things that all those books have in common (or so it seemed to me) is that they don’t necessarily set out to dispel the mysteries of the universe — they attempt to set some boundaries around what the mystery is in the first place. All of those books held a bit of magic for me.
I approached them the same way I would approach a novel: with a sense of wonder, a hopeful heart and an open mind, anticipating a great adventure. If that’s a bit too much romance for you, then let’s just say I had (and still have, I suppose) an interest in what might be called “new age mysticism.”
Anyway I can’t say I really understand the physics, and certainly not the math, but I do think I grasped some of the basic ideas.
A few years back I read a book called “The Cosmic Serpent.” Which isn’t about physics, it’s actually about DNA and anthropology, but it did raise an interesting point about the possibility that intelligence is actually an elemental feature of the cosmos.
Recently I discovered a publication called Nautilus Magazine, which provides quite a number of articles that carry on the tradition of blending science and philosophy.
Most recently, there was an article called Electrons May Very Well Be Conscious by Tam Hunt. The article explores the idea that electrons do not simply decay or move from one quantum state to another by chance, but rather by choice.
This idea can be reframed as a question of animate vs. inanimate. That concept may seem cut and dried when one is just walking around trying to find an address on a busy street and not bump into light posts, but it’s not so easy when you actually ask “what is life” and it turns out there isn’t a strict answer — it’s the length of an amino acid. Fifty pairs or so and it’s alive, otherwise it’s just a virus, which is just some stuff floating around until it meets a host. And it becomes alive. Or at least I think it does. Well I’m not quite sure.
If the idea of an electron being “conscious” seems too much to contemplate, one might ask this instead: how much consciousness do individual neurons have? What makes a person a conscious entity? If one were to look at a cross-section of a human brain and see neurons out of context, would it be obvious that the thing in question (the brain) was conscious?
And now we’re back around to the question at hand: what if electrons are like neurons, and the universe is one big conscious entity?
Another question that one might consider is if the electron is conscious does that make it sentient? In other words is it just a little calculation machine, like a bit, and if you combine enough of them you get a byte, and you can perform useful work, but the thing it’s organized into isn’t sentient. People are sentient, computers are not (at least not yet.)
How then do we get there — from a little particle that chooses a quantum state to a fully sentient being? Is it just a question of what level of organizational coherence is present — in other words on a small scale it’s just an abacus, on a large scale it’s self-aware? But then what laws govern that process? Is the process itself intelligent?
What if the universe is conscious? Does it sleep? Does it dream? Does it have desires of one sort or another?
And the really big, big question, the biggest one of all: does the universe have a sense of humor?
I hope so. 🙂