Saturday, January 17, 2015

Playing on Dialogues

by Gary Berg-Cross

Atheists, skeptics and non-believers along with their issues are not often shown in a very positive light when presented to the public on either the big or small screens. They are often stereotyped as misanthropic, slightly angry doctors, "lost souls” clinging to unsatisfying rationality or perhaps something else distinctly attackable and mildly distasteful. A recent and notable exception is in the award-nominated biopic film The Theory of Everything (a theory on the birth and death of universe perhaps from “nothing”) which features seminal theoretical physicist-cosmologist Stephen Hawking.  

Hawking is a familiar stranger to most of us and wildly know author of A Brief History of Time, which is highlighted in the film along with his firm liberal and atheist stances.  It is impossible to ignore his never-give-in bravery in the face of illness and his honesty expressing controversial ideas.  His confidence and good, perhaps naughty, eye-twinkling humor while clashing with his Christian wife makes him very fully human.  These dialogues includes:

Wife "What's cosmology?"
Stephen "Religion for intelligent atheists."

Wife persisting but interestingly "What do cosmologists worship?"
Stephen "A single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe."

Later at  Stephen’s family home dinner includes "You've never said why you don't believe in God."
Stephen "A physicist can't allow his calculations to be muddled by belief in a supernatural creator,"
Wife gets the last word "Sounds less of an argument against God than against physicists."

His humble humanity makes it hard to generate that fear-disgust reaction in the heart of believers. It is great to see this cinematic approach to not only hard science but also secular human values.

Besides this movie we have locally at the Anacostia Playhouse Theatre, a Sharpstick Productions of three plays written by Harrison Murphy and directed by Jim Giradi that take on some of these atheist-religious debates. Called Red High Heels and running from Jan 15-24 we are offered 3 one-acts that helicopter over differing perspectives.  It's a dialog feast and more than one can take in with a single viewing, but hopefully it will stay around and let repeat visits.

We start at a Bar as a middle aged man is having (by chance - randomness is a theme is these, so expect some surprises all is not as usual) a very bad day.  He is joined by a younger man, perhaps a younger version of himself, full of fight and confidence. He counsels toughness from a youthful, peanut-eating perspective.  They are quickly joined by an older man/version, perhaps from our protagonist’s future self who underlines alternate perspectives and counsels a wisdom that is the residue of living, which allows us to understand what is really important.

Play 2, Vignettes, moves from this intimate setting to the more public and impersonal and often frustrating one of waiting in an airport.  We move from friendly counselling to pairs of people falling into arguments.  A wide range of types and generations are here, flawed people in recognizable situations, including a comic relief, story-telling grandpa that leads us on an improbably journey trying to entertain (impress?) his grandson, a business man having an argument via cell phone, a prof and daughter who are stumble into the most bonding conversation as she leaves for college, and a lay preacher and hiking enthusiast with a bit of Hawking’s light humor touch sparring with a hard-headed lawyer.  

These are morally ambiguous, conflicted characters, flawed but believable folk.  Various characters introduce us to their philosophic perspectives and how they make sense of the world.  It’s about path finding, staying on track, or belief in guiding forces, but their lives are all over the landscape and lunge off track as they are all lead into a plane to take them away on a new direction. Who is steering things anyway?

This sets the stage for the final play which finds new people on a new flight with a mysterious Blue Box. It's a bit of a Hitchcock macguffin-type plot appropriate for the mysterious atmospheres generated in the plays.  But a single discovery and the evidence in the Box prove if God exists or not.  You are invited to guess as to the nature of proof. Here the extremes of debate are represented by a new-style, no holds barred Atheist, as for no quarter in conflict with a judicial Theist giving no solace except to say that Faith is the answer. 

In between we hear from professionals (Psychologist, Philosopher, and Anthropologist) as well as a Zen Buddhist as they argue whether the box should be opened.  We hear them argue their perspective of the issues in short segments. Along the way the play explores ideas about objectivity and subjectivity in our perspective beliefs, how context affects even a philosopher’s views, how intellectual passions can lead to emotional ones and more. 

As in the Hawking movie you may not learn enough about Space Time Singularity or Black Holes to write a book after watching these plays but its about the clarity of the interdisciplinary arguments. You gain into the issues and how they are discussed. The play's cosmologist shows the passions that stir up person like Stephan Hawing and perhaps an Atheist partner.You may know enough to be wary of Schrodinger's cat and Pandora's box. 

As an extra feature after the plays there is a 20 minute talkback session to hear from the audience.  These are run by people who are astrophysicists or philosophers and the like.  I was the Psychologist representative for the opening night and our after play conversation might have gone on for an hour.  

No comments: