Stages

Review: Science and Family Trauma in Mosquitoes at Steep Theatre Is Exciting and Perplexing

Scientists at CERN in Mosquitoes. Photo by Lee Miller.

You might look at Mosquitoes as two plays, stitched together. Set mostly in Geneva, Switzerland, where nuclear scientists work on the Hadron Collider, you have the excitement of scientific challenge and discovery. But mainly this is the story of a dysfunctional family, where the family members have the capacity for self-destruction, complete with anger and shouting.

Lucy Kirkwood’s play at Steep Theater, a U.S. premiere with crisp direction by Jaclynn Jutting, gives us alternating scenes of family drama. Two women, tied only by siblinghood, deal with varieties of trauma. The science of Mosquitoes is always exciting, if sometimes obscure. (The director’s note in the playbill is helpful.) The family drama, which could be a play on its own, flows urgently from pregnancy, death, missing children, and other disasters. Mosquitoes is overstuffed with science and nonscience, ideas real and imaginary, and a complex personal plot. For theatergoers with an interest in science and a bit of patience (the play runs 2.45 hours with one intermission), this is an intriguing but challenging theater experience.

The scientific setting is CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva. Locating the Higgs Boson is the momentous scientific event that excites Kirkwood. It’s a miracle birth of sorts and it’s matched with our own ability to self-destruct. This applies to the brilliant scientist Alice (Cindy Marker) who seems at first to have her life, both personal and professional, tied down neatly. Her sister Jenny (Julia Siple) could not be less buttoned down; she drinks, smokes and believes in astrology. In Alice’s pristinely severe Geneva home, all is white and Miesian.

Marker and Stuart as Alice and Luke. Photo by Lee Miller.

Her 16-year-old son Luke (Alexander Stuart) is a needy teenager who turns out to have bigger problems than his French homework, which his friend Natalie (Upasna Barath) helps him with. Luke is quite savvy about the science and about his mother. This is what he says when Natalie asks him what his mother does:

Luke: My mum’s a scientist, she’s looking for the Higgs Boson.
Natalie: What’s that?
Luke: it’s just a particle. It’s invisible but it’s all around us. They think it’s what gives us mass. Alice bangs on about it all the time, she’s obsessed.”

He also looks askance at his mum’s boyfriend, Henri (Peter Moore), a charming Swiss entomologist whose research has something to do with mosquitoes. And the hum of mosquitoes is heard throughout the play.

The Boson itself (Richard Costes) also appears from time to time, garbed in the play’s black-and-white scheme. He’s our existential guide, reminding us of the scientific past and pushing us into the future, where he knows how science will impact us.

Jenny is visibly pregnant as the play opens in her home in Luton, England. Alice is trying to convince her sister than ultrasound is a safe and essential way to be sure the fetus is ok. But Jenny, who has found all sorts of bogus science on the internet, says, “Yeah well I think actually what I feel, as a mother, might be stronger than just a…fact, don’t you?” (Alice answers with a firm “No!”) The point of view means she also will skip her daughter’s vaccinations later—a choice that has drastic results.

Thalken as Karen, Marker and Siple as Alice and Jenny. Photo by Lee Miller.

Their mother Karen (Meg Thalken), who lives with Jenny, is a noted scientist herself, but now is aging and suffering from various infirmities. “I should have won a Nobel Prize,” she says, and tells a Heisenberg joke.

Alice has to hurry off to work, much to her visiting sister’s distress. It’s a big day she’s been working toward for 11 years. It’s the grand switching on…the first beam. When she gets there, a French scientist tells her, “Alice, viens voir! Ils nous ont mis dans le Google doodle!” (Clearly, being in the Google doodle is a sign of success in the 21st century.)

Jutting’s direction brings out superb performances by Siple and Marker as the two sisters, and by Stuart as young Luke. Excellent projections by Stephen Mazurek help lead us through the science. Scenic design is by Sotirios Livaditis with lighting by Brandon Wardell and costumes by Emily McConnell. Sound design and original music is by Kevin O’Donnell.

During a scene late in the play, as the Boson enlightens us on the recent scientific event, an image of the Hindu deity Shiva is projected in an idyllic park scene. Shiva is the destroyer or transformer, part of the Trimurti or the Hindu “Great Trinity,” which includes Brahma the creator and Vishnu the preserver. I took this as an obvious if obscure reference to Robert Oppenheimer, who famously said at the time of Trinity, the first nuclear test, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” quoting from the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu scripture.

Lucy Kirkwood is an English playwright and screenwriter. She also is author of The Children and Chimerica. Mosquitoes opened at the National Theatre, London, in 2017.

Mosquitoes continues at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave., has been extended through November 16. Tickets are $27-$39 for performances Thursday-Saturday, with some Sunday performances.

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