Arlington — Dennis Maher, associate professor, dramaturg and coordinator of Theatre Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, has played historical characters in one-man shows before, such as writer and humorist Mark Twain and writer, actor and humorist Robert Benchley. Now he’s taking on a different kind of genius in Willard Simms’ Einstein: A Stage Portrait, which closes the season for Theatre Arlington. We talked to Maher about the show and the famous scientist.
TheaterJones: What is the structure of this one-man show?
Dennis Maher: Albert Einstein has invited an audience to his home to "get wise to me" in response to his portrayal in the media. He wants people to know him as an individual and not as "Relativity Himself" as he is often titled. (Athough I think Mr. Relativity would make a great new Marvel character :-). He leads his guests on a tour of his mind, an adventure which is not only revelatory but also a way for the audience to identify with him on a personal level.
How much research did this role require of you?
In addition to the script, I have read fairly extensively on Einstein's life, concentrating on his later life at Princeton. That made sense to me to explore common ground (professorial life on a university campus) before I delved into the less familiar scientific aspects. This script shines a positive light on him, even though he was an admittedly deeply conflicted man. I must admit to staying away from NatGeo's Genius, which I did not want to influence my personal storytelling. I look forward to seeing it after the show closes.
You've played historical characters in one-man shows about Mark Twain and Robert Benchley. What is challenging about this one?
THE PHYSICS. Math is a foreign language to me, always has been. I am what Einstein would call a "strudelkopf" and although I take pride in myself as a scholar, my brain does not work that way. I am fortunate to have a colleague at UTA, Dr. Ben Jones, a prominent leader in the field of Physics, who was kind enough to walk me through some things in order to portray the ease with which Dr. Einstein must demonstrate. BTW, Strudelkopf Man is another good Marvel character name.
Is there a trick to figuring out how to portray a historical character?
I am a culturally based Professor of Theatre History and approach all history that way. I look not only at the character but at that character's place in time and the sociological pulls on him. In that way, the character ceases to be a museum piece with little relevance to our lives today and becomes someone who speaks directly to us, in our own language, and in our own time. This approach is easy with Einstein—he was not only a man of his time, but a man ahead of his time. That was his blessing and his curse.
Why is Einstein a compelling figure right now, in an era that seems anti-science?
Einstein used both sides of his brain. He was a scientist that thought like an artist and vice-versa. He was an immigrant, was vocal about the causes he believed in, many of them dealing with human rights and which cost him greatly, and he fought to make science a servant and not the master of the future. He is today not only a pop icon but someone that remains on the right side of history rather than some superior egghead locked in a laboratory. In this increasingly anti-science world we need Einstein and his humanitarian leanings now more than ever.
What will audiences learn about him that might be surprising to them?
Aha! Spoilers! Perhaps that he had great challenges with work/life balance just as some of us do today and that he had a tremendous sense of understated, witty humor, which is very evident in this script.