Portraits of artists

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  April 6, 2010

The artistically driven, personally needy Dorian is the showiest role — if also the most obvious — and Benjamin Evett supplies him with an engaging flamboyance. More surprising are the characters of the other musicians, who develop from one-note to darker resonations. Michael Kaye, with his prissy, neurotic airs, lives up to the description of Elliot as not worth the trouble he makes. Shelley Bolman’s peacemaking if womanizing Alan is not without a snaky agenda. Bates Wilder catches the roil beneath harmony-advocating cellist Carl’s pleasant surface. And peasant-clad Becky Webber shows us multiple sides — rattled and assured, demurring and calculating — of Grace under pressure.

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FROM ORCHIDS TO OCTOPI Melinda Lopez’s Darwin commission is a collision of evolution-education primer and none-too-original romance.

Melinda Lopez’s new play, FromOrchids to Octopi, is subtitled An Evolutionary Love Story. But the National Institutes of Health–commissioned work (presented by Underground Railway Theater’s Catalyst Collaborative@MIT at Central Square Theater through May 2) is more a collision of evolution-education primer and none-too-original romance. I am a fan of playwright Lopez (author of Sonia Flew), but this effort — a combination of Darwinian Sesame Street and clichéd marital soap — reeks of commission and development. It’s as if its disparate elements had been integrated on some artistic spreadsheet and then presented in a manner that strains to entertain. The saving grace is David Fichter’s boldly colorful, ever-evolving, Darwin-inspired mural on moving panels, the coming together of which provides the show with both its scenic choreography and its coup de théâtre.

Assigned to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species, the play has been several years in the making. And Lopez — armed with gobs of research, her own personal experience, thoughtful ruminations on time, and a loopy sense of humor — crams a lot into 90 minutes, from a plea to save currently waning species to instructions on how to boil water. She does this by centering her story on question-spewing contemporary muralist Emma (Mrs. Darwin’s given name), who’s been commissioned to do, in a different form, pretty much what Lopez was asked to do in From Orchids to Octopi: revisit Darwin and his carefully formulated karate chop to what has evolved from Eden into “intelligent design.”

But Emma, after 10 years of marriage to up-and-suddenly-arrived restaurant chef Charles (you-know-who’s given name), is newly pregnant and given to strange dreams. This opens the door to visitations from Darwin and family — not to mention from a sinister old-time barker presiding over a “genetic lottery” and passing out mutations as if they were prizes. Providing the play’s liveliest moments, these surreal excursions to the scientific midway include an early stop in which an air-gulping, sandwich-board-costumed Devonian fish picks a card from the barker’s hand and acquires a neck that allows it to progress to the next evolutionary sweep step (“Tiktaalik,” this pre-amphibian of 375 million years ago is called), whereas its dinosaur chum can’t pick any card but “Bigger.”

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