Review: Notes on the Classification of Spectral Lines ...

Aided by science, this theatrical essay covers vast distances

Photo by Stephen Pruitt

When traveling with Stephen Pruitt and Rebecca Whitehurst, prepare to cover vast distances. The wastes of West Texas. The edges of our solar system. The light years to Earth's neighboring stars. Based on the trip they take in their new theatrical collaboration, these writers/performers/science buffs like to go big when they go from home.

Your first indication of that is their work's rather unwieldy title: Notes on the Classification of Spectral Lines, the Art of Water Writing, and Other Important Ephemera. It's the "fasten-your-seat-belts" warning upfront that Whitehurst and Pruitt's interests here are wide-ranging and esoteric, and that you'll be required to join them in the stupendous leap from stellar categorization to hydro-calligraphy and on to whatever other specialized topics they opt to cover here (game theory, as it turns out, and communication with extraterrestrial life, nonverbal signs in baseball, and judging the best Inspector Javert from among assorted professional versions of Les Miz).

If such topical shifts strike you as a bit dizzying, well, they are, and are made more so by the radical differences in presentation from subject to subject. For your guides, you see, take turns in the spotlight, and their characters are as disparate as diurnal and nocturnal. Pruitt, who spends most of his time lighting other peoples' productions, is low-key and down-to-earth – the salt of it, you might say, judging by his untucked workshirt and rough hands, the kind you can imagine lifting instruments all the livelong day and punching cues into a lightboard. You can easily picture him shifting gears in a rattletrap truck or fishing an afternoon away, and even when he's discoursing on such arcane astronomical matters as Drake's Equation and the Fermi Paradox, his stillness and straightforward manner make them sound surprisingly matter-of-fact. Whitehurst, on the other hand, is all kinetic energy and personal passion, literally whirling across the stage, falling to the floor, rolling on it, making rapid and fervent gestures as she does, as likely to engage with us through modern dance as through spoken word. When she does speak, however, she's no less energetic or intense. Her account of the neglected role of women in the cataloging of stars comes out with a brisk efficiency, but her breaks for notes to herself hint at a heated resentment beneath that icy surface. And when she gets into Russell Crowe's mush-mouthed delivery of "Stars" in the film of Les Misérables, well, let's just say that it's a good thing he isn't present or he'd be beaten into senselessness with his own bicorn hat. Jumping back and forth between her pinball vigor and his laid-back levelheadedness as they bounce from one arcane field to another heightens the somewhat head-spinning quality of this enterprise.

And yet these "notes" aren't nearly as random or disconnected as they may at first appear. Almost all of the various segments have something to do with space or means of communication. Pruitt provides a brief history of the Pioneer probe and the thought that went into the message on it once someone at NASA realized that it would eventually be the first object to pass into interstellar space and thus humankind's first opportunity to communicate with life beyond our own world. Here and elsewhere, Pruitt emphasizes the vastness of space, the extreme distances separating our planet from any that might harbor life at all, much less what we might label intelligent life. Still, we insist on trying to make contact across the void, to seek some language by which we might be understood by a being very different from ourselves. That idea seems to be threaded to the one in Pruitt's explanation of the signs used by baseball coaches to communicate with players at bat or on base. What's the surest way for someone in a dugout to send a message to someone on the field that can be clearly grasped despite its being coded? The gestures that Pruitt uses to illustrate the practice in the game are threaded to the gestures employed by Whitehurst in her modern dance – a vocabulary which may not be familiar to everyone in the audience but in which all of us can ascertain some kind of meaning. And the meaning in communication is threaded to Whitehurst's discussion of the lyrics to "Stars," during which she stresses the importance of diction as a tool for establishing clarity, which is threaded back to Pruitt's explanation of baseball signs, and so it goes, each distinctive topic covered by Pruitt and Whitehurst somehow being threaded to another, just as Pruitt at one point in the program connects a strand of red yarn from Whitehurst to various points in the theatre: a table, a mic stand, a chair in the audience …. Everything is connected, and it's that sense of connection that spurs us on to communicate despite the space that separates us.

Pruitt and Whitehurst ultimately leave us in West Texas, describing the sensation of driving alone under the immense night sky, feeling the isolation through the radio signals that fade as you pass beyond Fredericksburg on your way to El Paso. Just you and all those stars and so much space. Because everything feels so distant out there, the odds against communicating with anyone else feel, well, astronomical. But at the end of the particular thread that is this show, its two creators – seemingly opposites in so many ways – give us a sign that even in this expansive setting a message can be sent and received and understood – connections can be made. And based on the great distances we've covered and felt in the 75 minutes we've been traveling with them, that ends this intelligent, eclectic odyssey to explore "important ephemera" on notes of wonder and hope.

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You better listen to the radio

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Notes on the Classification of Spectral Lines, the Art of Warer Writing, and Other Important Ephemera, Stephen Pruitt, Rebecca Whitehurst

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