What’s that? A musical production steeped in physics, biology, and chemistry concepts that also tells the compelling story of one of the most important women of science who ever lived? That pitter-patter you hear is my nerdy little heart waking up and capering about like a puppy hearing a ringing bell.
This show is a delightful romp through the life of Madame Marie Skłodowska Curie. We all know her, right? She isolated the elements radium and polonium, gave her name to the international standard for measuring radioactive emissions, and won two Nobel Prizes. But there is far more to her story: her struggles to gain a scientific education at all in the face of the pervasive misogyny of her time, the endless search for lab space and funding (some things never change), the attempt to continue her studies while balancing a home, and not least the pressures that the recognition of her discoveries brought with it.
Sound a little dry? Not a bit. With a mix of engaging songs (written by Sadie Bowman, who also plays Curie), plenty of humor, and dialogue supersaturated with scientific terminology, the major events of Madame Curie’s life are vibrantly depicted. The musical samples various periods, from her time clandestinely teaching other women in defiance of the government to her attempts to further her own education, first in Warsaw and then at last at the University of Paris. There she meets her future husband, Pierre Curie (Ricky Coates), who—unlike many others in her life—treats her scientific ambitions seriously. (However, after they are married, he still expects her to cook, clean, and take care of the baby in addition to getting the science done, which Bowman does in a whirl of mime and music.)
The staging is simple, as is typical of productions at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. A few tables and chairs and a lot of adept physicality are sufficient to suggest the scenes: the cold laboratory, the leaking garret, the chaotic home filled with husband and daughters bouncing around like atoms in a gaseous state. Other characters are represented by shadow puppets manipulated by Coates behind a screen. There is a smattering of scientific apparatuses present, as well, like Pierre Curie’s piezoelectric device and a glowing beaker of radium that Bowman successfully keeps away from the baby.
The play not only tells us about Madame Curie but is an education in science as well. A sentence doesn’t go by without several scientific references making an appearance. And the show is the first I’ve seen with a bibliography, recommending three different biographies for further reading. (Better read ’em—I heard there’s a quiz on Monday.)
And there’s more! Matheatre, the production company composed of Bowman and Coates and describing itself as “the Intersection of Arts and Academics,” is primarily a touring company. The two actors travel around the country putting on shows at high schools and universities. Curie, in fact, is but one part of a collection entitled “STEM-Based Theatrical Experiences,” which includes Tesla Ex Machina and Calculus: The Musical, first presented at the Minnesota Fringe Festival in 2006 and still going strong! Further, as the band icanhasmath, they have produced many fun and useful math-based musical videos and CDs, available for viewing and purchase from their website. All of their songs talk about mathematical and scientific concepts, some of them pretty advanced, using an astounding variety of styles and mnemonics so that every song, just like Curie, is catchy and educational for ages 6 to 60—and both ends of the age range were in attendance at the show I attended.
Matheatre is available to appear at your local school, but with one performance left in their pair of Bryant-Lake Bowl shows this weekend, I heartily recommend you catch them there before the production is “curied away”! (Don’t @ me. It’s their title.)
You can see Curie Me Away at 3:00 p.m. on September 16, 2018, at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater (810 W. Lake Street, Minneapolis).