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It’s New Year’s Eve, 1999. A body has been discovered beneath the floorboards in Northumberland England. What a horrible memento of the upcoming millennium. Flashback two hundred years - same house - disturbing events also ruin New Year’s Eve, 1799.
The Phoenix Players are presenting a multi-faceted, extremely intelligent and very adult production. Much more than a murder mystery, it’s an artistic battlefield between intellect (science) and emotion (human nature). Entitled “An Experiment with an Air Pump,” it’s inspired by an 18th century work of art. The painting shows a scientist smothering the life from a beautiful bird to prove that living creatures cannot exist in a vacuum. The onlookers are either disturbingly indifferent to the cruelty or appalled by it.
On opening night, co-director and lead performer Bob Combe is unable to join the cast due to illness. He is replaced masterfully by co-director Ben Fabrizi who offers his skillfully mature interpretation. In fact, all the players give intense and effective performances. In addition, their accents are a joy to hear.
Beautiful Semane Parsons plays an 18th century feminist who is unable to fulfill her creative gifts because of the “cold scientist” personality of her husband. She finds refuge in the bottle. Her flash forward role requires a complete change of gears. In 1999 she’s a sought after scientist with an unsuccessfully creative husband. Well done.
The most sinister characterization by Hugh Davies, as a physician in 1799, displays incredibly destructive manipulation and callous self interest. Davies then makes a complete reversal as worldly wise handyman, Phil, in 1999. Outstanding job.
Jessica Rendon gives a top notch and heartbreaking performance as the hunchbacked household maid, Isobel, in 1799. She is humble, lovely and content with her lot. Only when an educated, supposedly civilized professional reveals his baser instincts does her simple life become wrenchingly complicated.
My personal favorite is Eimear Kenny. She makes the most difficult reversal from an 18th century spoiled rich kid to a jaded, seductively cynical entrepreneur in 1999. Other supporting performances that are meticulously given include Matt Coonrod as Roget, the originator of Roget’s Thesaurus. His love of lists belies a much less structured emotional side. Finally, Athena Kazantzis portrays Maria as the second Fenwick daughter. She is just as spoiled and just as demonstrative. Kudos to all.
At every turn the audience is confronted with ethical dilemmas by playwright Shelagh Stephenson’s well crafted dialogue. What atrocities has society committed for the sake of science? What cruelties for the sake of humanity? Ultimately, every detached scientist reveals excessive emotion. Every emotionally engaged humanist reveals excessive malice. What a powerful yet unsung play, deserving of much more exposure.
Kudos to producer Annie Wolf, whose leadership is felt in every aspect of E Phoenix Idealis Inc./Phoenix Players. The play runs through December 6, at the Poppenhusen Institute. It’s located at 114-04 14th Road in College Point. Call 516-678-0016 for tix.
As the holidays approach, more troupes will brighten the season. As always, save me a seat on the aisle.


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