By: Jiana Estes & Audrey Polinski
and the Hot Kitchen Collective. At: The Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: Steppenwolf.org/tickets; $15-$20. Runs through: Feb. 7
By the time the performers reach the second dance break in Hot Kitchen Collective's Big Science, playing now as part of Steppenwolf's LookOut Series, actual scientists in the audience may be flummoxed. By the time the dancers are fleeing a chest-bursting alien puppet shooting silly string from its mouth, they have likely given up the search for serious science on stage.
Devised by the Collective and directed by the team of Jiana Estes and Audrey Polinski, Big Science uses the concept of science to address questions of isolation and apocalyptic thinking. Jumpsuit-clad, energetic performers Kaylyn Carter, Carol Crosby, Katelyn Douglass, Katie Friedman, Jasmine Henri Jordan, Alex Hovi, Wade Howard, Andy Slavin and Lindsey Barlag Thornton bound around Steppenwolf's cabaret space, often revealing their own scientific passions. One actor loves the ever-mysterious narwhal. Another is mad that a Tesla has been shot into space. Yet another is deeply annoyed that China is getting so much press for landing on the moon. This ragtag collection of devisers each portray a specific scientist expounding on their research interests in faux symposium segments that bleed into the autobiographical realm. Those segments often bleed into dance breaks. There's a lot happening.
The most successful material in the show embraces the passion with which human beings put forth complicated theories. A highlight occurs when one scientist attempts to explain multiverse theory, illustrating his ideas with an equation that falls apart as he writes it on the white board he drags onstage. A continuing motif of scientists moon-walking from scene to scene to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey is also delightful; Andy Slavin's choreography is bright and expressive. Estes and Polinski and the cast are clearly having a great time.
Costume designer Charley Guptill gives each performer a distinctive jumpsuit, varying in colors and styles. Guptill's props are likewise playful, with space helmets creating an epic scope, and a microphone being dragged across the floor creating the sense of a void. Katie Friedman's set is basically a collection of wires and metal stools, as if these faux scientists have very little funding for their lab work. All in all, it's a scrappy evening of theatre.
But devised theater only works for the audience if we are moved to feel as deeply as the performers do. In the case of "Big Science," the directors have led their performers into developing hilarious moments and memorable movement work. But the parts do not add up to much of a whole, to the point that one performer had to tell the audience what the evening's festivities was all about. It is worth interrogating science to prove an alternate point, but there is not enough breathing room onstage for the actors to explore material that costs them something emotionally. If Big Science were intended to be profound in its musings about space and the end of the world, it missed the mark.