Truly effective plays are often built on big ideas. And ideas don’t get much bigger than the Birth of America – or E = mc 2, which happen to be the subjects of two shows currently being performed by a pair of prominent Sonoma County theater companies. One’s a classic, rarely performed due to the monumental size of its cast, The other is brand new, notable for the minimalism of its scope, in the face of the gargantuan themes it dares to tackle.
Let’s start with the classic – Spreckels Theater Company’s grand staging of Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards historical musical ‘1776,’ first produced in 1968. Telling the surprise-laden story of how America’s Declaration of Independence came to be signed, the production, under the direction of Larry Williams, combines a cast of nearly 30 actors, along with clever projections and elaborate, gorgeously detailed costumes. Not surprisingly, the show looks magnificent, and the somewhat longish tale — clocking in at just under three hours, with one intermission — only rarely loses its momentum. That’s really saying something for a show boasting just thirteen songs, only two or three dance numbers, and a “plot” – if that’s the word – in which impassioned political debate carries the bulk of the “action.”
The story, fortunately, includes a Who’s Who of American historical figures. Jeff Coté plays John Adams, who – in May of 1776, is desperate to convince his fellow Continental Congress-members to separate from Great Britain. Coté is wonderful, fiery and fun, even if the singing does sometimes get away from him, pitch-wise.
Adam’s chief supporters in seeking Independence are Benjamin Franklin, played by a thoroughly delightful Gene Abravaya, and the darkly moping Thomas Jefferson, David Strock. Then there’s the genial Richard Henry Lee, played by Steven Kent Barker, who shines in one of the show’s most rambunctious songs, ‘The Lees of Old Virginia’. It’s thorough-lee infectious, and if you think that joke is bad, wait till you hear the ‘Lee puns’ layered through the song itself.
‘1776’ is a massive undertaking, and Spreckels pulls it off with only a few bumps.
Assisted by a large orchestra under the fine guidance of Lucas Sherman, Spreckels accomplishes a very difficult task with, as audiences will clearly see, far more grace and polish than the founding fathers showed in bringing our still struggling nation to life.
On to another big idea.
At Cinnabar Theater, Trevor Allen’s delightful ‘One Stone’ takes on Albert Einstein’s development of the Theory of Relativity — but approaches it on a much smaller scale than that with which Spreckels tackles 1776. Under the inventive direction of Elizabeth Craven, working on a simple stage suggesting a cluttered office, a single actor, Eric Thompson, represents Einstein’s Brain, his various discoveries and observations brought to life by a balletic puppeteer (Sheila Devitt) and an often-present violinist (Jennifer Cho).
Elevators fall through space, bicycles scoot along at the speed of light, and much more.
The miraculous thing about ‘One Stone’ is how emotionally powerful it is. With little in the way of actual plot, Allen’s words, plus Thompson’s exuberant performance, and the rich, magical puppetry of Devitt, all create a poetic space where Einstein’s ideas scamper about like curious children in a playground. ‘One Stone’ is consistently lovely, excitingly unconventional, and thoroughly extraordinary.
‘One Stone’ runs through February 19 at Cinnabar Theater, www.cinnabartheater.org. ‘1776’ runs Friday–Sunday through Feb. 26 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. www.sp[reckelsonline.com