Haunting. Quirky. Beautiful. These are not descriptors one would expect to associate with the life story of a scientist. But in the hands of Jeff Mills, any story can take on unexpectedly delightful dimensions.
Mills teaches movement and theater at UCSB and possesses a long list of credits in theater, including founding member of Boxtales Theatre Company, actor and director with multiple companies from local to international, and head of the new Proboscis Theatre Company. He conceived, devised and directed Piezoelectric Love: The (Half) Life of Marie Curie, a multimedia, multidisciplinary evening of theater exploring the life of Marie Curie, working with playwright Valerie Slitor.
“Half life” in the title refers to the amount of time radioactive (a term Curie coined) material continues to decay, but also to the fact that this is only a partial telling of her story. No life can be fully detailed in one evening, so while much of the material is taken from letters and other writings, artistic license and artful fabrication are at play.
Mills is a genius at blending vaudevillian and campy humor with a contemporary edge in a way that is earthy, yet elegant. He brings together old and new, fantasy and reality, metaphor and literal truth with a lot of heart. This is a long evening of theater, at two hours and 40 minutes, including two intermissions. But an experience like this can’t be rushed, perhaps requiring an old-school attention span.
Born in 1867, Curie, a native of Poland, met and married French scientist Pierre Curie in 1895, and they had two daughters. She discovered radium and polonium, which she named for her home country. Their love and life together were entangled with their passion for science. Together, they won a Nobel Prize in Physics, and she later was awarded another in chemistry, becoming the only person to ever win in two fields.
The ensemble cast works beautifully to portray everything from the tenderest moments between Curie and her family to notable men of science arguing the principles of her discovery (while wearing red clown noses) to a carnival sideshow hawking radium and touting its healing properties for everything from hair loss to foot fungus to the most horrifying effect of her discovery — the nuclear bomb.
Several intervals where Marie and Pierre are represented by dancers in masks, with voice-over by the actors, give the production a dreamy feel, as do the long, gauzy white panels of fabric hanging from above. They serve as a backdrop but can be pulled aside or swirled onstage for effect.
Kelli Coleman-Moore, as Marie, displays deep emotion but also conveys the witty and glib side of the character. Brian Bock is a strong actor, and his Pierre shows us how keenly he loves his wife and their life and work together. As the carnival barker and also as their eldest daughter, Hasmik Anna Saakian is a standout, with an incredible capacity for expression, humor and movement.
The original musical score, composed and performed by Anna Abbey and Jim Connolly, is imaginative and beautiful, bringing great texture to the production. Christina McCarthy’s choreography and puppet design and Kira Gold’s costume design add beautiful visual depth, as does Erin Martinez and Jamie Birkett’s artwork, projected onto the gauzy panels of white.
All the elements come together to create a fascinating portrait of a woman and her significant contribution to society. While her and Pierre’s bodies were poisoned by what they loved, the glow of radium illuminated their life together. For better or worse, the ripples their work generated are ever-widening and ever-deepening.
Piezoelectric Love: The (Half) Life of Marie Curie runs through Saturday in the UCSB Performing Arts Theater. Click here for tickets and more information.
— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.