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Exposing the fruitful works of darkness

Weird science takes the stage in a play about Charles Darwin

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- IN PROGRESS :  Writer and director Alan Navarre rehearses The Devil’s Chaplain. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • IN PROGRESS : Writer and director Alan Navarre rehearses The Devil’s Chaplain.
Readers’ theater, the intimate and unapologetic stepsister of a full live theater production, doesn’t happen that often in San Luis Obispo County. In fact, only a handful take place at the SLO Little Theatre each year and on Nov. 29 Alan Navarre debuts The Devil’s Chaplain for two nights only.

 

The Devil’s Chaplain, first published this year in England, confronts the idea that Charles Darwin’s seminal work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, may not have been that fundamental after all. Evidence surfaces (some directly from Darwin himself), that he may have stolen ideas written by Edward Blyth (played by a fresh-faced Nicki Barnes) years before the 1859 publishing date of On the Origin of Species. Blyth was a creationist and considered to be Darwin’s bete-noire.

 

Navarre, a law student by day, is obviously a lover of science. This led him toward this particular story.

 

“I gravitate towards the disinherited, the oppressed, and bask in giving them their due,” he said. “The Devil’s Chaplain is portraying research that isn’t usually communicated through mainstream media.”

 

It’s an uncanny historic moment for the meticulous director and playwright, since this premiere is happening 150 years to the week of the publishing of On the Origin of Species and the Central Coast is getting a front row seat to the dramas that will unfold. “It will introduce Edward Blyth to the world,” said Navarre.

 

The Devil’s Chaplain cast is young and old, of all shapes and sizes. Audiences will become enamored with these rich, fleshed-out characters, and their mannerisms. Since there are no set changes, viewers will find themselves immersed in the details of the dialogue, learning much along the way. The readers in this readers’ theater are all relatively unknown with the exception of Elaine Fournier, a dancer since the age of 4 and a professor of theater and drama for more than 20 years at Cuesta. Fournier portrays Dr. Darwin, fresh off of a stunningly magical run as Virginia in The Clean House, also at the Little Theatre a few months ago.

CURTAIN CALL :  Pictured from left to right are Navarre, Amytra, Toni Young, Nicki Barnes, Chazahla Cynclaire, Elaine Fournier, and Sam Vlahos, the cast of The Devil’s Chaplain. (David Hance is not pictured). - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • CURTAIN CALL : Pictured from left to right are Navarre, Amytra, Toni Young, Nicki Barnes, Chazahla Cynclaire, Elaine Fournier, and Sam Vlahos, the cast of The Devil’s Chaplain. (David Hance is not pictured).
Through the characters’ camaraderie, Navarre creates situations in his script that call Darwin out on his indiscretions. However, the plot is sympathetic to Darwin as a man, taking into account several factors, including the fact that he had a contentious relationship with his father, something many of us can relate to. The story is as much a character as the actors on the SLO Little Theatre stage.

 

Sam Vlahos, a veteran television and film actor, portrays Adam Sedgwick, Darwin’s opponent and early mentor. Vlahos started out his career more than 40 years ago in radio, had a recurring role in the drama E.R., and acted in such films as the Robert Redford-directed The Milagro Beanfield War.

 

This alumnus of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco found it easy to say yes to his part in The Devil’s Chaplain.

 

“It’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time … it has significance.” The significance he speaks of is the role Darwin actually played in his own melodrama of sorts. The meat of Navarre’s script is based on fact, and was even approved by Janet Browne, a leading expert on the life of Darwin, and a professor at Harvard University.

 

Navarre took a few poetic licenses and liberties while telling the story of Darwin, the father of evolutionary biology, (and The Devil’s Chaplain—a nickname he gave himself), and the unknown Blyth, whom Darwin studied.

 

Navarre has been tweaking the script since rehearsals began, making it better and better according to Vlahos. “He’s a natural writer. I’ve been waiting for someone like Alan to come to town.” Vlahos not only appreciates Navarre’s written style but his directing as well. He guides the actors, encouraging each of them to look deep into their characters, like Toni Young, a wonderfully ebullient Robert Fitz Roy, Darwin’s nemesis.

 

Ultimately, since these actors aren’t paid they have to love the nuts and bolts of the material and if done right, Vlahos expects audiences to be entertained.

 

“It’s sophisticated, funny, and full of greed.”

 

With the play set between 1838 and 1859, during the era of Dickens, all of the actors work hard to portray hearty English accents (with the exception of Chazahla Cynclaire, who plays a lambent Sir Charles Lyell, and is a native of England).

 

- EXPOSE:  The Devil’s Chaplain shows Nov. 29-30 at 8 p.m. at the SLO Little Theatre, located at 888 Morro in downtown SLO. $10. Tickets and information: thedevilschaplain.eventbrite.com or call the theater directly: 786-2440. -
  • EXPOSE: The Devil’s Chaplain shows Nov. 29-30 at 8 p.m. at the SLO Little Theatre, located at 888 Morro in downtown SLO. $10. Tickets and information: thedevilschaplain.eventbrite.com or call the theater directly: 786-2440.
Navarre is knowledgeable and talkative, a flowing river of Darwin facts and trivia which makes sense since the play is a character-driven piece featuring seven speaking parts. When asked if audiences will appreciate this story, Navarre responded, “People are rediscovering critical thinking, and have started to question what is going on in the world.”

 

Being a relatively new playwright, Navarre didn’t have a lot of options when shopping around his script, and a staged reading rather than a full-scale production complete with sets and costumes seemed to make more sense. A full production is in the works for the future.

 

During the historically passionate and luculent tale, there are drama, darkness, surprises, and Hitchcockian suspense and at the center of it is David Hance, emoting the naturalist Darwin. He is jocund, and powerfully precise as his presence leaps off of the stage. Equally charming is Amytra, who depicts wife and first cousin Emma, a character who crescents, and at times echoes, Darwin’s conscious.

 

Playgoers will forget the smarty-pants science and hopefully find some answers, and even more questions.

 

Darwin still rules with the evolutionary iron fist, but was he a phony? A plagiarist? You have to show up to find out.

 

Christy Heron can be reached at cheron@newtimesslo.com.

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