Ex Machina, Into History

Everyone knows that film actors like to go on crusades, especially if they're unlikely to go down in history as brilliant actors. Brigitte Bardot tries to prevent the murder of animals, Charlton Heston campaigned to prevent the prevention of the murder of people, and 1940s screen siren Hedy Lamarr invented Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) to prevent the Nazis from winning World War II, and tried to get the US government to consider using it. Yes, really. If you want to learn the true story of how Lamarr invented FHSS, and what subsequently happened to her creation, Frequency Hopping, written and directed by Elyse Singer, reveals all. Frequency Hopping is especially memorable for its impressive array of new media, by production and media designer Elaine J. McCarthy. This ranges from computer animation projected on scrims, swathing the actors in two-dimensional images and popping them into the landscapes of gigantic 1940s photographs, to the incidental music, which emanates from several large player-pianos, without a human musician in sight. The latter is provided by Eric Singer's LEMUR: League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, programmed by Paul Lehrmann of the Ballet Mecanique Project. Anyone interested in the use of technology in theatre should go see this show: in this regard, it is inspiring and challenging. In the 1950s, on live radio, Lamarr's sometime confidant, revolutionary Hollywood composer George Antheil, reminisces about his involvement with Lamarr. What exactly was its nature? Was Antheil the star's lover, or did they share something more extraordinary? When the two met, Antheil was supplementing his composer's fees by peddling disturbing quackery about "endocrinology" that sounds like eugenics. (He thinks that a certain endocrinological profile makes "men like Wilde and da Vinci" gay.) Lamarr wants to enlarge her breasts using hormones. Once she's gotten a diagnosis out of Antheil, she tells him that really she wants his help with her hobby: "making secret weapons." An exemplar of geek glamour in Angela M. Kahler's elegant, dignified period costumes and J. Janas and R. Greene's naturalistic, historically accurate wigs, Newhouse's Lamarr soon invents FHSS -- and discovers that sexism in Hollywood and Washington is more powerful than the best frequency-jamming apparatus.

Singer's exploration of Lamarr and Antheil's shared belief in the power of their imaginations to harness technology to create beauty and preserve life is truly revolutionary. Such optimism is rare in science fiction, which tends to be dominated by predictions of technological dystopia, and absolutely needs to be explored more thoroughly in our culture. The California-based STAGE award, which recognizes and provides development for plays about science and technology, should help. As the New York Times reported, Frequency Hopping went through a lengthy and, Singer admitted, energy-sapping process of "play development" before STAGE gave it the recognition that in part allows us to see it today.

While Frequency Hopping is interesting, it also frustratingly sounds like a very innovative engineering lecture rather than a human drama. The plethora of technological bells and whistles does not help: rather, it competes with the actors. When Lamarr (Erica Newhouse) and Antheil (Joseph Urla) endearingly play, like children, that they are a torpedo and an airplane, this could have been a moment of great theatricality. Unfortunately, a computer-animated airplane and torpedo appear on the scrims; flight paths zoom around them in glowing loops of dashes, and mock the merely human actors' attempts to suggest machines in flight. In another scene, news footage of Nazis marching in a parade loses its power to frighten by being shown partially in reverse, and to jaunty electronic music, making it seem as if the goose-stepping storm-troopers are actually a troupe of dancers.

These two scenes reveal what is right and wrong with Frequency Hopping. The technology, and the story of a technological breakthrough, is compelling, accessible, and magical. I loved the concept, and wanted to love its execution. However, the scenery-chewing technology -- onstage and in the exposition -- often drowns out the humanity. That is a shame, because it was Lamarr and Antheil's humanity, as well as their scientific curiosity and technical know-how, that inspired them to apply their scientific curiosity to combat the most inhumane technocracy the world has ever known.

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