Instinct at The Lion Theatre

*Published on January 22, 2012 in The Edge 

Matthew Maguire, the two-time OBIE award winner and co-founder with partner Susan Mosakowski of the Creation Company, a longtime fixture on the experimental circuit, has undertaken to pen a straight play. To other denizens of downtown theater, this means the play is about the words, the actors, the sets, the direction, and the flow of the text.

Maggie Bofill and Amirah Vann in "Instinct"

Maggie Bofill and Amirah Vann in “Instinct”   (Source:Gerry Goodstein)
It is not embellished with film, revolving stages, undercurrents of past lives, mythological beings, indigenous musical scores, slow-motion, or choreography; in short all the things I reveled in when I first saw The Creation Company’s work in the late ’80s. Maguire has grown into a playwright who is secure in his ability to tell a story in words utilizing strong characters as his mouthpieces.

“Instinct”, produced by the Creation Company, is the tale of two scientist couples — one straight, one lesbian — both attempting to parse and dissect their relationships and a virulent strain of the communicable disease, SARS.

It seems as if author Maguire spent a great deal of time learning lots of scientific back story; the science was sometimes baffling, the way science is to outsiders, but always enthralling. The piece was originally commissioned by Emory College’s Center for Creativity and the Arts Strategic Initiative and it pits and partners epidemiologists Mara and Daniel, played with gusto and commitment by Kim Blair and Jeffrey Withers, with (and sometimes against) vaccinologists Lydia and Fermina.

I loved the performances of Maggie Bofill as Lydia, a Russian scientist repatriated to Atlanta and addicted to pain killers and in love with a fiery Dominacana, played with equal force by Amirah Vann.

We meet the scientist couples on New Year’s Eve in two sequential scenes played out on a simple, workable set by Ben Kato. Some screens and cubes allow for all the action to unfold in a lab or apartment without the need of deep physical grounding. The opening shows us Maguire’s skill at pithy banter as the couples prod and preen before us, making promises for the coming year, which involve groundbreaking research and love making.

As Mara attempts to seduce Daniel into conceiving a child she utilizes a great scientific argument, “My genes are so good, it would be a shame to waste them.” Daniel is unconvinced. He wants to be a scientist first and fears the world he sees through his microscope. This provides the ongoing tension between this couple even as they are forced to work together to stop an epidemic, which we are told is in danger of becoming a pandemic.

The scenes shift to Lydia and Fermina, who have isolated a new vaccine created by actually cloning one strain from another, if I correctly absorbed the science in between the drugs and their similar fights about whether they would have a child.

Farina is all-in, while phlegmatic Lydia is full of doubt. The dialogue is quick and cinematic, filled with scientific metaphor. Dialogue like “Language can not live without a host so therefore it is a parasite”, made me pause and reflect on the skill of the author. But I often wanted more action.

Finding this urgency onstage is difficult, as we have been spoiled by so many action movies on the same theme — “Contagion” being the most recent — where scientists run and race, fight, and finally win the battle over a virus, alien, or meteor that will destroy the earth. It is a tough call to create this tension with only language, a small set, and very present actors.

Each scene change is punctuated with the duration of the outbreak and the number of casualties: Day 1/7 Dead, Day 28 /978 Dead. There are many scenes in between where the scientists debate rushing to hasty cures or following the slow pace of science.

During this time the scientists grow more and more tired, which draws attention to a silly detail: although they are exhausted, the lesbian couple clings to wearing three-inch heels throughout the exhausting month portrayed on stage.

I would love to know what costume designer Christina Bullard had in mind when she concocted these gals in their gray and red heels toiling endlessly, popping pills, and fighting about commitment and emotional intimacy. At least Mara is wearing sensible flats as she becomes more and more tired, banishing Daniel to the couch and resorting to artificial insemination, and getting pregnant all during this one hellish month.

Sometimes this kind of detail can distract me, and maybe other audience members, from the finer points being unleashed. And perhaps director Michael Kimmel, who did a fine job moving the players and exhorting emotional performances from them, might have taken a slight reality check in the final rehearsals to see what reduces reality and thus force from “Instinct.”

In the final analysis I was wrapped up in the characters and dialogue, but kept seeing it as a movie. Maybe that will emerge from this showing. Imagine a great stage writer giving film actors some meaty, bright text with which to pepper an action movie. Please pass the popcorn.

“Instinct” plays through February 4 at The Lion Theatre, 410 West 42nd St. For info or tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit www.creationproduction.org or www.telecharge.com 

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One response to “Instinct at The Lion Theatre

  1. Are the heels a sexist touch?

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