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Review: 'The Undermain's Port Twilight, or The History of Science'

by Jerome Weeks 19 Nov 2009 7:55 AM

Weird science, that is. In Port Twilight, playwright Len Jenkin creates a surreal city in which different visions of the future are being sought out and decoded: genetic, messianic and cinematic. The Undermain Theater’s splendid world premiere is a dark, comic carnival where scientists dance, an alien speaks, a rabbi despairs and a shlocky filmmaker worries about getting the future right. Jerome Weeks reviews.


  • Jonathan Pacheco’s review for Slant magazine
  • KERA radio review:
  • Expanded online review:

Len Jenkin’s dark, whirling comedy, Port Twilight, follows several storylines as they trail throughout the fantasy city of the title. All of the stories involve what might be called decoding messages and ‘alien contact.’ Our narrator-guides to the city of Port Twilight are two out-of-work cabaret performers. They work day jobs at an outfit called OPME (Off-Planet Message Exchange), where they monitor interstellar radio noise for messages from other planets — signs of intelligent life. A rogue biogeneticist angrily quits his job but soon gets hired by a cheesy filmmaker to work on his latest sci-fi script. Naturally, it’s about traveling to another planet; the scientist has moved from working on real futures to hokey movie futures. Meanwhile, unraveling DNA and radio static are linked to decoding the Torah: A despairing old rabbi, played by Bruce DuBose, wanders the city streets, peddling amulets and trying to call down the Messiah.

Jessica Cavanagh, Ariana Cook, Josh Blann and Christian Taylor, l to r

DUBOSE: “The desperate citizens of Port Twilight no longer believe in the holy names. They’ll starve me to death. No matter. After tonight, all will be changed and the End of Days will be upon us.”

The Undermain Theater is presenting the world premiere of Port Twilight. Give a dozen designers the task of creating sets for this entire carnival, and the majority would try to replicate some aspect of the city, Port Twilight. They’d be foolish. They’d have to compete with playwright Len Jenkin’s fantastical language, the way his dialogue conjures a shadowy cityscape out of noir movies like Nightmare Alley. But then, his Port Twilight is also deeply surreal like something out of a Fellini film, with wax museums, an organ grinder and an old park —

DACK AND DONNA (the play’s narrators): — “beyond the park, Raven Laboratories.
“And the limestone caves where gypsies live. Beyond the caves, the Dark Forest.”
“ Leopards.”
[Howling and music fade]

So – what John Arnone did for the Undermain production was skip the whole mythic city and delve straight into Jenkin’s sources of inspiration. Jenkin’s play is a sci-fi noir spinning out various futures: technological, religious and extraterrestrial. It mixes ancient Hebrew predictions with space maidens and genetic experiments. As a result, for the scenery, Arnone has wrapped the Undermain’s entire basement with a long canvas backdrop. He’s had it painted with big, bold images from movie posters, tattoo parlors, Mexican wrestlers’ masks and Japanese comics (kudos to painters Linda Noland and Terry Hays). Even some of the scientific instruments used on stage are assemblages of Buddha heads, doll parts and vinyl hosing. The whole production has a neon, trash-culture aesthetic that suits both the play’s noir and sci-fi elements, both the future and the decaying past. Think: extremely low-rent Bladerunner.

I’ve gone on about the production design like this partly because not many small stage companies have a Tony Award-winning designer like Arnone. And partly because so much of Port Twilight works on the level of texture, atmosphere and mood. It’s a mood of apocalyptic dread shot through with a vaudeville-baroque delight in theatricality and humor. At one point, we see a line of lab-coated scientists observing the orange flash of an explosion. The next time we see them, they’re a chorus line dancing stone-faced to the music of the “Science Dance.”

Directed by Katherine Owens, the Undermain’s production — everything from DuBose’s music to Jeffrey Frank’s video design — is a marvelous, funky, pop-culture collage. The cast is strong, including DuBose in two roles (rabbi and filmmaker), Kent Williams in a variety of comic cameos (including Mr. Argento, the organ grinder) and Christian Taylor as a spookily opaque Messiah. Josh Blann has an electric presence as the spiked-hair biochemist, and Jonathan Brooks and Shannon Kearns-Simmons do a nice job, playing our showbizzy, tour-guide couple who can seem cheerful, sinister and clueless by turns.

The staging’s only weaknesses are an occasional lack of poignance, of a human dimension that would let us feel something more for several of these characters, make them more than quick, comic types. A romance, for instance, between Blann’s biochemist and a hired-academic screenwriter (Ariana Cook) seems to pop up out of nowhere. For his part, Jenkin has also researched and loaded in so many futuristic scenarios that the best Owens can do sometimes is just have characters stand there and swap ideas about mind-altering nanobots.

A nanobot is a microscopic machine. The theory is that thousands could eventually be injected directly into our brains and they’d shape our senses, our ideas. Language itself is a kind of mind-altering nanobot, and thanks to the Undermain, thanks to Len Jenkin’s language, Port Twilight makes for a haunting, mind-altering experience.

  • Opus R

    Saw the show last week. Really great stuff. Right on!

  • Twilight most certainly should get a five out of five in my opinion