🎭 Controlled Explosions, Under Pressure | “Oppenheimer” @ Rogue Machine

Oppenheimer (Rogue Machine)Most people who read these particular posts may think I’m a theatre reviewer. While it is true that I go to lots and lots of theatre, and I write up every show that I go to, that’s not my full time profession. Similarly, although I do the California Highways Web Page, I neither work for the Transportation Department, nor am I a historian. Rather, in my full-time life, I’m an Engineer, doing cybersecurity, working (shall we say) for the public good. This means that my heart is with science and mathematics (which is where my degrees are); my wife is similar attached to Chemistry, Physics and Engineering. This is all a long-winded way of saying that when I learn about a good hard science play, we want to go.

When I first heard about the play Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB), I mistook it for a play produced many years ago by LA Theatre Works (FB) as part of The Relativity Series, a collection of science themed plays. I was confusing it in my head with Copenhagen, a play about Warner Heisenberg,  Moving Bodies, a play about Richard Feynmen, and The Real Dr. Strangelove, a play about Edward Teller. All dealt with the same events as Oppenheimer, all involved J. Robert Oppenheimer as a character, and all involved the development of the atomic bomb. But none of them were Oppenheimer. In any case, I coordinated some tickets for the show remembering that I liked it — then I realized it was a different show. But never mind — it was about science, and I was looking forward to going to it.

At this point, I’d like to emphasize how vitally important it is to have and to get people to see plays about science. Theatre excites, theatre raises questions, theatre starts discussions. Theatre gets people thinking. Further, theatre doesn’t have the distance of movies; you see these are people just like you. It can excite and encourage people to go into the sciences, to see the value of science, to not fear science, and to see the value of critical reasoning and thinking, and the pure joy that can come from it.

Last night was the opening night of Oppenheimer, as well as being the opening night for Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) at their new digs at the Electric Lodge (FB) in Venice, and it was that — electric. Although the show was long — 2 hours, 45 minutes with intermission — the time just flew by. The story and the presentation were so engrossing it drew us in; we left thinking this was the best drama we have seen to date in 2018*. Just like our favorite show of 2017 (This Land at Company of Angels), it touched upon an area we love; it also got the facts right and made us think. It left us talking about the show and its ideas, and wanting to strongly encourage others to go see the show. It took a complex issue and made it understandable and entertaining. It showed the power of theatre.
* The best comedy was Paradise, which we saw a few weeks ago at Ruskin Theatre Group.

Oppenheimer, written by Tom Morton-Smith in its American Premiere, tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is generally known as the father of the Atomic Bomb. It starts in his early days when he was splitting time between Caltech and UC Berkeley, and dabbling in leftist ideas and leftist politics — as were many scientists and philosophers in the days after the Great Depression, when socialist ideas were in vogue and helping the nation recover under FDR. The scenes alternate between establishing Oppenheimer’s social character and social circle, and establishing his scientific credentials and his scientific circle, which often overlapped. We get to meet some of the key scientists in Oppenheimer’s circles — his brother, Frank; Bob Serber, Joe Weinberg, Hans Bethel, and later, Edward Teller. We get to see the extent to which they were involved in leftist and Communist causes, we get to see Oppenheimer’s lover Jean Tatlock, his colleague’s wives Charlotte (Serber) and Jackie (Oppenheimer), his future wife Kitty, who he stole from another professor, Richard Harrison. We see the fervor and the passion — both for their causes, and even more so, for the atomic science that is developing as they hear and read reports from folks like Heisenberg and Bohr in Germany.

Oppenheimer - Cast Photo StripWe also get to see this academic exercise make the transition to a military exercise, and how the families and relationships deal with the strain of that transition — and the moral impact of what they are actually developing. As this is occurring, we also see the impact of the past coming back to haunt them (just like so many Livejournal, My Space, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts of today). We get to see the strengths and the weaknesses of Oppenheimer’s character — his devotion to the science, but the weakness with the women. We see how politics and ambition created difference between Oppenheimer and his brother Frank, how it may have led his lover to suicide, and how his handling of incidents came back to haunt his life.

From what I know of Oppenheimer and the other characters at the time, they got the story right — although a bit simplified for a theatre audience. This comes not only from the plays I’ve seen, but the research I’ve done and reading of Feynman’s books. They got the science right. They got the way the military behaved right. In fact, it brought to mind the notion of Program Protection — the concept of protecting CPI (Critical Program Information) to prevent your adversary from being able to duplicate your technology and field it before you. Those are terms from today’s DOD (DODI 5200.39, 5200.44), but those notions are clear in this play with Oppenheimer’s strong desire to protect the information they are developing. According to my wife, they even got the projected equations correct.

In other words, in the story aspect of this show — they got it right. They made it exciting. They got the right balance of technical, people, and story to make it interesting, but not insulting to those who understand the technology and the history. You’ll walk out of this show both enlightened, informed, and entertained. A great combination.

A few additional notes:

  • I appreciated the opening number of Act II, “We’ll Meet Again”. I have no idea whether the younglings attending the theatre will recognize that as the closing song in Dr. Strangelove. I did.
  • The “Little Boy” monologue reminded me of the similar scene in the musical Allegiance about the dropping of the bomb, and the reaction from the other side. It is interesting to think about the two productions in juxtaposition, and the overall message of what it says about the war effort, and what Americans are willing to do when they believe they are at war with an intractable enemy.
  • There were some interesting comments in the story about the importance of science and scientific thinking, and how it can combat the ability to believe anything you hear. There were specific references in there to vaccinations, and it was eerily foreshadowing the current administration (this was written in 2014) with its anti-science attitudes towards climate change, research, and so forth.

Under the direction of John Perrin Flynn (FB), the actors were believably their characters, and clearly seemed to be enjoying their parts. Flynn had to corral a very large cast (much larger than you usually see in LA’s intimate theatre), and he pulled it off with a precision and storytelling flair that made me think this should be on the larger stage — the Mark Taper, the Ahmanson, or dare I say it (dare, dare): New York. The story, direction, and performance is of that caliber.

In the lead position was James Liebman (FB) as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Liebman captured the look and personality well, tall and gangly, quick to respond, projecting the right aura of confidence in his knowledge and rightness, but a bit less sure in the social situations. He clearly seemed to enjoy this role, and that joy was projected to the audience.

Moving to the next tier, let’s turn to the scientists whose characters stuck in my mind: Ryan Brophy (FB) [Frank Oppenheimer], Mark Jacobson (FB) [Bob Serber]; Michael Redfield (FB) [Hans Bethel, Piano Player, Musical Director]; Dan Via (FB) [Edward Teller]. This was primarily because their characters appeared throughout the entire storyline or were particularly memorable. Brophy captured the younger brother well, both with the competition aspect with his older brother, as well as the stronger fervor for the leftist causes. Jacobson was very strong as Serber, one of the key secondary scientists and the only one — other than the Oppenheimers — who was presented as having a family. He radiated the scientific excitement well, and served as a great sounding board for the lead. He was fun to watch. Redfield’s Bethel was a European representative, again capturing the science well. Lastly, Via’s Teller was more the elder scientist, presenting a man much more interested in the science than the weapon.

As a digression, regarding the “stuck in my mind”: This was a large cast show, and it was difficult at times to tell characters apart and remember their names. The program would be helped with a few pages of Dramatis Personæ, identifying the major characters and their roles, and perhaps a little historic background.

Continuing the second tier, let’s look at the lead women: Rachel Avery (FB) [Kitty Harrison]; Kirsten Kollender (FB) [Jean Tatlock]; Jennifer Pollono (FB) [Charlotte Serber]; and Miranda Wynne (★FB, FB) [Jackie Oppenheimer]. Let’s start with Kollender — she’s one of the first we see, as Jean, Oppenheimer’s lover. Her performance exudes vivaciousness and sex, but even more so, her suicide scene in the second act is extremely touching and emotional, and was just a great performance. Turning to Robert Oppenheimer’s other woman — Kitty. She gives off a different vibe — one more of lush aloofness, with an emphasis on the lush. She makes you wonder what her relationship was with the man — was he a way to get away from one husband, or was there true depth of feelings here. The actress captured that aloofness well. Pollono and Wynne had more supporting roles to their husbands, although Wynne captures the energy of her character well, and Pollono gets a wonderful moment during the second act when she stands up as a department head. All were really fun to watch.

In the third tier were the scientists who either had smaller roles (such as those brought into Los Alamos for the bomb work), or those who disappeared before Los Alamos primarily due to their leftist affiliations: Rick Garrison [Klaus Fuchs]; Zachary Grant (FB) [Robert Wilson]; Daniel Shawn Miller (FB) [Luis Alvarez, Doctor]; Brewster Parsons (FB) [Joe Weinberg]; Brady Richards (FB) [Richard Feynman]; and Kenney Selvey (FB) [Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz]. All captured the scientific curiosity and energy well, and came across believably as scientists who knew what they were doing and the gravity of it.

Also in this tier was Ron Bottitta (FB) [General Leslie Groves, Albert Einstein]. In my professional life I have worked with numerous colonels, lt. colonels, and even the occasional general in Space Division. Bottitta captured the senior officer quite well — the authority, the intelligence, and the calibrated bullshit tolerance level. He was fun to watch.

In the last tier are the smaller roles and the ensemble members: Marwa Bernstein (★FB, FB) [Ruth Tolman, Choreographer], Daniel Jordan Booth (FB) [Soldier, Ensemble]; Jason Chiumento [Soldier, Policeman]; Brendan Farrell (FB) [Kenneth Nichols, Richard Harrison]; Rori Flynn (FB) [Waitress, Ensemble]; Scott Victor Nelson (★FB. FB) [Haakon Chevalier, Colonel Paul Tibetts]; Delilah Bank [Little Boy]; Landon Tavernier (FB) [Peer de Silva]; and Rachel Sorsa (★FB) [Singer]. A few performances are worth highlighting here. Bank was spectacular in the Little Boy monologue that I mentioned earlier. Nelson was strong as Tibetts in his one scene, capturing the Army Air Corps pilot quite well (remember, the USAF was not created as a service until 1947, after the war).

Understudies were: Daniel Jordan Booth (FB), Jason Chiumento, Rori Flynn (FB), Daniel Shawn Miller (FB), and Jennifer Sorenson (FB). Sophie Pollono was listed in the program as “Little Boy”; it is unknown whether she alternates in the role with Bank, or Bank was a replacement.

Finally, turning to the production and creative side of the team. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz (FB)’s set was both sparse and spectactular, showing the power of theatre to not need the realism of film. Simple walls with hooks and squares, a few benches, some chalk, and a few wood hanging pieces, and your mind created the necessary barracks and parties and rooms and such. Realism is highly overrated. This design combined with the projection design of Nicholas E. Santiago to create a holistic fusion providing not only the place but the setting. Projections provided the titles for each scene, and they provided selected additional scenic elements. These aspects were supported by Matt Richter’s (FB)’s lighting design and Christopher Moscatiello‘s sound design. Richter’s lighting utilizing moving LEDs and moving mirror lights, in addition to both LED and lekos to highlight portions of the stage and particular characters, they also provided an effective flash during the bomb sequences. The sound design also worked well during the bomb sequences, providing the deep notes of the explosion quite well. The final key piece of the design picture was Dianne K. Graebner‘s costume design. Although we had a few minor quibbles with the military costumes (unsurprising, as we both work with, and have worked with, the military extensively) that we let her know about during the opening reception (and which will likely be corrected), the costumes overall fit the period well and provided the final piece in establishing the time, place, and setting. Rounding out the production team were: Barbara Kallir (FB) [Asst. Director]; Sam Kofford (FB) [Asst. Director]; Steve Vance [Scientific Advisor]; Susan Wilder [Research]Marwa Bernstein (★FB, FB) [Choreography]Michael Redfield (FB[Music Director]; David A. Mauer [Technical Director, Bomb Design]; Amanda Bierbauer [Production Manager, Prop. Design]; Victoria Hoffman [Casting]; Tor Brown [Lighting Co-Designer]; Michelle Hanzelova [Projection Co-Designer, Key Art Design]; Jacquelyn Gutierrez [Asst. Scenic Design]; Judith Borne [Publicity]; and Corryn Cummins [Social Media]. There was no explicit credit for stage manager (tsk, tsk); presumably, that was Amanda Bierbauer.

Oppenheimer continues at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) until December 30th. Go see it, it is one (if not the) best dramas we have seen in 2018. Tickets are available through the Rogue Machine box office. They do not appear to have a listing on Goldstar.


Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

October continues next weekend with Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

Continuing the lookahead: November starts with She Loves Me at Actors Co-op (FB) and Stitches So Cal. The second weekend of November is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). Thanksgiving weekend has Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB). Lastly, January will start with Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.