Science, poetry, faith, and romance all collide in “Paradise,” which is having its world premiere at Central Square Theater April 6-May 7. But playwright Laura Maria Censabella says she started with a simple premise: “What happens when two people are in an extreme situation?”
From that idea, Censabella built a drama that explores the relationship between an ambitious Yemeni-American high school student and her overqualified biology teacher, a onetime researcher whose fall from grace has left him with a job in the New York City public schools. The unlikely alliance these two create emerges out of conversations that weave in Dante and Darwin, as they develop an experiment around the science of romantic love and the evolution of the teenage brain.
Director Shana Gozansky says the play’s explorations of how our assumptions can be upended in surprising ways appealed to her.
“Laura writes recognizable characters,” says Gozansky. “Because we are comfortable with them, we are willing to take an unexpected journey with them.”
“Paradise,” presented by Underground Railway Theater, is a production of Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, a program that supports plays that open a door between art and science. Gozansky says the conversation around science — how a research project is developed and the kinds of collaborations it requires — is much more accessible because Censabella’s characters are so human.
”I really enjoy the electric experience of working with the artist to discover a new world. I see my role as a kind of midwife,” Gozansky says with a laugh.
Censabella turned to scientists and several young Muslim women to be sure she was portraying the characters accurately.
“I had to educate myself about academic scientists and the process of developing a scientific theory into hypothesis and research topic,” she says. “But I soon learned that science is simply another way in to conversations about human relationships.”
Gozansky says casting was tricky because she needed actors who were not only comfortable with the discovery and surprise inherent in working on a new script, but also because Censabella’s character Yasmeen al-Hamadi quotes the Koran and speaks Arabic fluently. Caitlin Nasema Cassidy, who travels to Saudi Arabia three times each year to teach, landed the role of Yasmeen.
“Ultimately, both the teacher [played by Barlow Adamson] and the student need to show that hunger for something more,” says Gozansky. “That’s something that we all have in common.”
‘Barnum’ cast gets real
As soon as Todd Yard knew he’d been cast in the title role of “Barnum,” he ordered juggling balls.
“It’s something I always wanted to master, but now I had a reason,” says the actor, who performs as the showman P.T. Barnum in the Moonbox Productions musical that runs April 8-30 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. (Tickets: 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com.)
After watching YouTube videos to learn juggling, Yard and several other members of the cast signed up for classes at Esh Circus Arts in Somerville.
“I’d never done a handstand before,” says Yard, “but I took classes in tumbling, trapeze, Cyr wheel (a human-size spinning ring), and lyra (a large hoop suspended in the air), and they gave a window into this man who was always ‘on’ in public but kept his personal life completely private.”
Director choreographer Rachel Bertone says she cast singer/dancer/actors who also were willing to try some circus routines.
“‘Barnum’ is not about spectacle. It’s really about a very personal story of a man trying to pursue his dream,” says Bertone. “Of course, having a cast that is willing to learn plate spinning, acrobatics, and juggling certainly adds to the fun.”
Matthew Kossack and Daniel Forest Sullivan, who are in the ensemble and share the duties of dance captain, say that the movement involved in the circus classes was often familiar. “We recognized some of the lifts,” says Kossack, who is also circus captain, “[but] that didn’t make it any less terrifying.”
Bertone says she relied on Esh’s Ellen Waylonis to develop the two show-stopping aerial routines at the end of each act. “I want to push what’s expected,” says Bertone, “but that’s how I approach every show I work on. The opportunity to both direct and choreograph allows me to make sure all the movement enhances the storytelling.”
“Barnum,” she says, is an “opportunity for people to go behind the scenes and see the man who dreamed up these outrageous shows, lived by the motto ‘There’s a sucker born every minute,’ and meet his long-suffering wife. The circus acts are just the icing on the cake.”
But now Bertone has to turn her attention to the rehearsal room, where all 12 members of the cast are rehearsing a “brick toss,” while singing harmonies for “One Brick at a Time.”
Celebrating Robbie McCauley
“Robbie McCauley ’n Company: a convening in performance” celebrates the longtime writer, performer, and professor of theater with two days of performances, conversations, and readings April 6-7. A highlight of the celebration will be performances by noted theater artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Jomama Jones, Dael Orlandersmith, Carl Hancock Rux, Pamela Sneed, and Joanie Fritz Zosike, as well as McCauley and Jessica Hagedorn. The events, sponsored by Sleeping Weazel and Emerson College’s Performing Arts Department and Office of the Arts, are free and open to the public and take place at Emerson’s Greene Theater. For more info, go to www.sleepingweazel.com.
Presented by Underground Railway Theater. A Catalyst Collaborative@MIT production. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, April 6-May 7. Tickets $16-$62, 866-811-4111, www.centralsquaretheater.org.Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.