IN 1609, A GERMAN ASTRONOMER NAMED Johannes Kepler published the culmination of his self-described "war with Mars." The Astronomia Nova, a treatise attempting to calculate the orbit of Mars, was but one of many cosmological studies by Kepler which would greatly influence later astronomers and mathematicians, including Sir Isaac Newton. After all, Kepler once stated -- in a spasm of modesty -- that "Truth is the daughter of time, and I feel no shame in being her midwife."

A few hundred years later, Kepler's theories are getting a new spin. Annex Theatre's Bret Fetzer and the Compound's John Holyoke worked together on a couple of projects in the early '90s. But their shared fascination with Kepler prompted a more long-term collaboration. I got a chance to talk with Fetzer and Holyoke about their own war with Mars -- Mars Is a Star Who Defies Observation -- before it debuts at Annex this week.

I. Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Tonia Steed: How did this collaboration between you two begin?

John Holyoke: I was putting together a play at Annex several years ago [Night Was Young: A Bitch in a Hurry Produces Blind Pups, 1994], an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of collage play. Some of the materials I was working with were from the life of Johannes Kepler. I wanted Bret to write a couple of scenes from a window of time when Kepler was hanging around with this other astronomer called Tycho Brahe [a prominent 16th-century Danish astronomer and the Holy Roman Emperor's Imperial Mathematician]. The two worked together, but also had a powerful rivalry. Anyway, we decided that they must have had their big meals in the morning, since they would have been up all night working. So Bret wrote two breakfast party scenes, which turned out to be bricks in the whole masonry of the play. Meanwhile, Bret had developed his own interest in Kepler and Brahe's relationship. So he started percolating away and wrote an entirely different play around the same two scenes.

Bret Fetzer: And that was the germ for Mars Is a Star Who Defies Observation.... I originally wrote those scenes as a lark, playing with anachronism and incoherence. I wasn't worrying about the characters being consistent or real. I just threw characters in, turned on the spigot, and whatever came out of their mouths came out of their mouths. I tossed in all kinds of material: a book I was reading about medieval animal law, a book on the history of torture, and Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae. [The mix] felt random at the time, but now it all seems deeply interconnected.... Even though I aspired to be as incoherent as I could be, certain ideas fell into place, and I began making critical decisions about what fit together, and got rid of the rest.

We tend to steer away from that associative, stew-pot kind of process, because we're trained to build linear narratives. But it sounds like you got a narrative out of chaos anyway.

BF: Oh yeah, this is definitely a non-linear play, but even the more unstable characters have a through-line. If they behave erratically in terms of what we think of as a realistic character, the behavior still comes from the same [motivations].

II. Astronomer vs. Astronomer

What got you interested in Kepler in the first place?

JH: My first introduction to Kepler came courtesy of Carl Sagan on the Cosmos series, in seventh grade. He dedicated an entire episode to (somewhat cheesy) dramatizations of Kepler's life. That resurfaced in my mind for some reason about eight years ago, and I began to research his life with more vigor.... I took a hungry interest in the way Kepler's intellect worked. The distinctions between heart and mind, between creativity and analysis, and ultimately, between truth and beauty, didn't exist for [Kepler].

And Tycho Brahe?

BF: Brahe was a favorite of kings; he was very good at sucking up and getting a lot of money from them, allowing him to set up his own little private courts. He reigned over his family, [research] assistants, and Jepp the Dwarf -- a sort of court jester -- like a tyrant.

JH: Yeah, Brahe was a real character. He was the first statistician who realized that collecting raw data -- just the facts -- could give you power. After he became popular, he played the government. He'd threaten to move to another country, and the [Imperial Roman] government would say, "No, you're such a star now. We'll give you this castle," and he'd come back with "That's not quite enough." Eventually he got an entire island and a Disney-like castle with a retractable roof [Sound familiar?]. He had an entourage of interns, and governance over everybody on the island.

BF: But he also made a few major discoveries. His writings on a supernova and his prediction of the eclipse freaked everyone out. At the time, that was like magic.

III. The Players

Can you talk a little about the other characters?

BF: There's Tycho Brahe's daughter Elisabeth, his assistants Longomontanus and Tengnagel, Jepp the Dwarf, an Inquisitor, a medieval lawyer, and Kepler's mother [Katharina Kepler]. On top of that, there's a talk show host named Bret Fetzer [not played by Fetzer], and his guest, Camille Paglia [not played by Paglia]. Camille, of course, is her irrepressible self; much of her dialogue is stitched together from interviews and passages from her book Sexual Personae. All of the characters are pretty obnoxious, but the humor gives it a sick kind of appeal. Kepler is a self-absorbed neurotic, Tycho Brahe is a raging egotist, Tycho's daughter Elisabeth is a prickly character, and then of course there's Bret and Camille commenting on the action, making assumptions about what's going on.

[A witty exchange early on in the play between the Bret Fetzer and Camille Paglia characters illustrates this dynamic:

CAMILLE: Rape does not destroy you forever. It's like getting beaten up. Men get beat up all the time.

BRET: But men also get raped, and I suspect that they find it more traumatic than a simple beating.

CAMILLE: Bret, have you ever been raped?

BRET: I can't say I have. And yourself?

CAMILLE: Apparently not, or I'm sure I'd be talking about it all the time.

BRET: So neither of us really knows what we're talking about.

CAMILLE: But we won't let that stop us. (They laugh convivially.)]

IV. The Workshop

You originally went your separate ways with this material, and then came back together to work with it in collaboration. How did the project evolve?

BF: I ended up writing a modular play -- you can take the body of material, pull it apart, and rearrange it to create your own narrative out of it. To use a grandiose analogy, you can look at it like a Shakespeare play, which people have hacked and hewed to fit their own desires. To use a more prosaic analogy, it's like a recipe, something you can modify to your own tastes. It is a body of scenes that can interact with each other but don't necessarily need to follow the sequence in which they appear in the script. Anyway, I was thinking of John as director when I wrote it, and I was happy he was able to do it.

You've got so many things going on in this play: clashing narratives, an experimental structure, and characters who live in a historical as well as a fictional reality. What kind of responses did you get when you workshopped the play at Annex in early 1998?

BF: Very positive. It kind of surprised me! The audience found the play very funny. I had no idea how it was going to come across, because on the one hand it's chaotic and experimental, but it's also very idea-driven. A lot of the jokes are about abstract things, but I grounded them enough to be accessible.... I think if we hadn't had such a successful workshop, [a full production] would have been a much harder sell to Annex.

JH: But people were so excited after hearing the script, that Annex just said, "Yes, let's go." And we're working with many of the same actors, too. That's been a godsend, because the rehearsal schedule's pretty tight, so we've had to use the workshop as a "pre-rehearsal...." All I have to do is say two words and they'll say, "Oh, I know what you mean!"

V. The Elements

What role does video play in this production?

JH: A good portion of the action happens on video. It's a large chunk of stuff to be seen on TV monitors, so I'm trying to keep the video world blended in with the live performance, so that the audience isn't quite sure whether it's been prerecorded or is a live feed. And hopefully that will keep the video from having a sedative effect -- I mean, video can be kind of mesmerizing.

Does the video operate in its own discrete stage world, or do the performers interact with it? Does the video function as commentary, back story, or simply additional story?

BF: Characters move to and fro through the live and video worlds. Camille and Bret also appear live, for example, and Kepler and the Inquisitor are interviewed on video. But I don't think there's any point where characters on stage speak to or are spoken to by characters on video, at least not the way it's being staged now. The video isn't so much back story -- though it often provides information -- as a parallel narrative.

VI. Mars' Core

Is there a core argument that connects the play's overlapping narratives?

JH [to Bret]: Can I give her the old double dialog spin?

BF: Um, sure, although I'm not sure what the double dialog spin is.

JH: The play doesn't have a spine of action [a plot line], but it does have a spine of debate -- a theoretical argument. There are two arguments going on at once. One of them wants to be about astronomy and ideals of beauty [Kepler believed that God had made the universe according to a divine mathematical plan].... When the play strikes them, law and astrophysics were in strange and early stages. Kepler had a sense that science should be as much about aesthetics as nuts and bolts. That's what made his discoveries agony -- he discovered all these asymmetrical things: Like the play, they weren't pretty. Reckoning this with God was difficult.... The other argument, powered by Jepp the Dwarf, is this hyper-adolescent obsession with sexual politics. These two debates are jostling for the microphone of the whole play. That's where the action is -- these debates are trying to make the play be about them, and they clash constantly.

BF: It's as if the play sets out to tell the story of how Kepler and Tycho Brahe established the sun-centered model of the solar system through rigorous examination of the physical world, but then the play keeps being side-tracked or outright sabotaged by the personal agendas of the various characters, including the author himself.... [Mars Is a Star Who Defies Observation] constantly goes off the rails into elaborate nonsense, or discussions about historical cases of genocide, or an analysis of pee-shyness. [The effect] is frenetic and comic. Even Kepler, who generally tries to keep to the subject of science, finds himself overwhelmed with sexual desire for Elisabeth Brahe and goes off-track as well.... I think I identified with Kepler's project of trying to decipher reality through such paltry tools as sextants and mathematics. I feel like I'm trying to do the same thing with theater.... In the end, reality always refuses to be what you want it to be.

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