Listening to a piece of music in the classical sonata form is like a having a breakthrough conversation or going on an explorer's journey. You roam and develop, moving through various keys, from musical theme to musical theme. By the time you return home in the ending section, called the recapitulation, finally arriving in the key that governs the whole piece, you are more expansive—you know more because of where you've been. This is an 18th-century invention as aggressively rational as Carl Linnaeus's taxonomy system, Rousseau's social contract, or Diderot's Encyclopédie. It is a way of linking the self to the world, a reassuring device with which no matter what you find out there, you can always come back to where you belong, better off than when you left.
But there is an intellectual dissonance in applying the sonata form to the story of Louis Slotin, the scientist who accidentally radiated himself to death while working on the Manhattan Project in 1946. After all, the progressive pursuit of all this knowledge over centuries didn't put the world together—it blew it apart. Today, instead of living at the height of enlightenment, we find ourselves in the ongoing era of the bomb. In this context, classical form is a balm, but history refuses to play along.
While handling a plutonium-bomb core in his laboratory, lead scientist Slotin accidentally exposed himself and seven others to a massive dose of radiation. Slotin died nine days later, his body and mind corroding with poison and morphine. In Sonata, written by Paul Mullin and directed by John Langs, the actors repeatedly reenact the disaster—in styles ranging from 1950s comic book to hero-making propaganda—intercut with scenes from the hospital where Slotin is dying and visions from his morphine fantasies, culminating in the Jewish scientist's delusion that he is Nazi "physician" Josef Mengele. Despite Mullin's devotion to structure, our protagonist, the self-proclaimed "bomb putter-togetherer," has blasted himself into moral and physical chaos. Conversations begin and end repeatedly like enforced musical codas, but no application of form can resolve Slotin's dilemma. This is still a play worth watching, even if it doesn't get where it wants to go.
A large part of what makes it worth watching is the way Empty Space Theatre uses its new Lee Center for the Arts at Seattle University. Fluorescent lights on the normally hidden back wall turn it into a perfect institutional environment, whether the military hospital where Slotin dies, or Auschwitz, where he hallucinates himself as Mengele. A wall that opens onto the white-lit theater lobby, the metal staircase up to the tech catwalk—all of these blank-space components are used to great effect by set designer Gary Smoot.
Plus, Empty Space, with its financially troubled past, makes a confident statement by putting on a production with so many scenery changes and a cast of 10—enormous by nonprofit theater standards. The cast is solid, and the standout performances come from the places you'd expect: Paul Morgan Stetler as Slotin, Philip K. Davidson as his observant Jewish father, and Jim Gall as the cold-hearted doctor who treats Slotin and show-stops as Mengele in the wild dance number at the heart of the play, during Slotin's deepest morphine fever.
Despite multilayered performances from each actor (Kate Czajkowski also deserves mention for her roles as Slotin's distraught nurse and a Mother Nature forced to waltz with Mengele) and rich, warm moments in the script, the sole musical number makes the greatest impression. How could it not? It is performed against the backdrop of a floor-to-ceiling Nazi flag and stars Mengele bragging about his continuing presence in the world, from Ground Zero to Baghdad. I loved the feeling that the play was exploding into something outrageous—it was like Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, and KISS rolled together—but grimaced at the way the song-and-dance lazily simplified evil through this monstrous character and his white-coated servants doing a frantic Charleston. Authors are notorious for being symbolically unaccountable in dream sequences, and this sequence has run away with itself: Equating the Manhattan Project scientists with Mengele is more provocative than evocative.
Sonata is indebted to the deathbed flights of Angels in America and the wonkery of recent math-science plays like Wit, Copenhagen, and Proof. It's more visceral and entertaining than Copenhagen, but not the masterpiece of Angels. It isn't easy to find resolution in a story that begins and ends with an explosion.