Tuesday, May 12, 2009

After Darwin

According to Ian (Jonathan Tindle), the actor playing Robert FitzRoy (of the H.M.S. Beagle), "Real passion comes from ideas." Unfortunately for him, his counterpart, Tom (Benjamin Ellis Fine), who is playing Darwin, doesn't have any. Such is the point of Timberlake Wertenbaker's fine intellectual drama, After Darwin. It's as hard for FitzRoy to hold on to his religious passion after running aground on Darwin's cold ideas as it is for Ian to maintain his own highbrow morality in light of Tom's unscrupulous fame-hunting. The parallel's not as tight as it could be, and Wertenbaker's plagued with the over-explainies (each scene loudly projects its theme: "Despair" one moment, "Idealism" the next), but thanks to some fine chemistry between the cavalier Fine and professional Tindle, After Darwin manages to make poor-man's Stoppard look appealing.

As such, Wertenbaker excels when in history mode and flounders when the director, Millie (Heather Grayson) or the writer, Lawrence (Tarantino Smith) annotate the action. It's just that in this case--thanks to the actual director, John Hurley--the floundering is fascinating. Much of this comes from Fine's charisma as a meandering rogue--at one point, trying to justify his lack of research, he mentions that he doesn't trust history, particularly the Holocaust, and yet he comes across more as selfish than evil. The rest comes from the bleed between the two tiers of acting, as Ian's anger ends up making FitzRoy more complete, and Tom's ability to react allows him to nail Darwin without understanding natural selection.

Toward the end, the show peters out, explaining so much that it fails to preserve the "mystery of being human" that FitzRoy fights for. However, in this case--as with Darwin's explanatory theory--having the answers isn't such a terrible thing.

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