Drop by drop

Joe Palca and Susie Neilson report on a phone-sized device that can test for cholera in 30 minutes. It’s the work of Katherine Clayton and colleagues at Purdue University.

Still early days; more field tests are planned.

[Clayton] knows making a cholera test doesn’t put her on a fast track for financial success.

Instead, she says, her background in engineering has made her feel a sense of obligation to help find solutions to global problems: “That’s what I enjoy — knowing what the future could look like.”

It was the engineering

The irritating canard about Metro service to Georgetown, exploded one more time: “How the urban legend of Georgetown residents halting a Metro stop came to be,” by Topher Mathews.

I researched the archives of the Washington Post and the Washington Star, looking for contemporaneous mentions of local opposition to a Metro stop in Georgetown. Throughout the period of the planning of Metro (i.e. the 1960s through to the system’s opening in 1976), I could not find one example.

Succession

Some wildflower species don’t need organics in the soil to thrive, and don’t need what we would call hospitable temperatures. Rachel Cohen of Boise State Public Radio takes a botany walk through Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, which has 750 species on its checklist.

It’s too darn hot

A roundup of coffee agriculture-related stories:

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 4

Michael Weller’s self-described work of “surreal slapstick” is the most challenging play of the festival, and ultimately the most rewarding, the one that gets under your skin. “Challenging” in the sense that some theatergoers don’t know what to make of it (as I consoled a seatmate) as well as in the technical sense. There are preposterous overnight transformations of the five characters’ living quarters, a remote-controlled bulldozer, and a series of silly headgear worn by the generator of all this surreal slapstick, one Mr. Shimeus (Wade McCollum). Shimeus spends most of the play wearing a tiny umbrella on his head.

But to back up a bit. McMoley (no-nonsense Lou Sumrall) and his family of Shananana, Frizzby, and Zazu, a Christian rock and roll band, are living in an abandoned factory at a time in the future when civilization has nearly collapsed and cities are vaporized by accidental/intentional detonations of “weapons dumps.” Strong-armed by the local housing authority, they are required to make space for Mr. Shimeus. When we first meet him, he is an abject puddle of a man, having lost his family, property, and livelihood, bringing nothing with him but some peculiar food customs. But not for long.

Shimeus immediately establishes a border between his side of the factory floor and McMoley’s side. His command of English improves by the hour, like an infernal version of Larry Shue’s Charlie Baker; there’s something of Edward Gorey’s spheniscid doubtful guest in Shimeus. His command of technology verges on the magical. Whatever he is, his power increases daily, pushing his boundary deeper into McMoley’s turf.

McCollum’s Shimeus is a verbal shape-shifter, keening, roaring, muttering in some tongue to offstage family members who somehow have materialized—stumbling in his English at one moment then hyperarticulating the next.

Is the rise of Shimeus a parable of the westward expansion of Europeans in America? Or a parody of the Jewish relocation into Palestine (Shimeus always sets an extra place at table for missing guests)? Or a recounting of the arrival of Latter Day Saints in Utah (there is a subplot with a mysterious bundle that bears a strong resemblance to Joseph Smith’s golden plates)? Or a recap of the Cold War and the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction?

A Brechtian coda doesn’t answer the question, dismisses it altogether. But the conflict remains.

Michael Weller, in an interview for the program book, says,

… the level of discourse on my social media newsfeeds about politics is psychotic. Things have become so crazed that the attempt to actually speak quietly in the middle of it to try and unravel what’s going on isn’t nearly as strong, at least to me, as trying to yell over it more stupidly than the discourse itself. By screaming that loud and that irrationally, could you make people think, for a moment, “That’s actually what we sound like?” I gave myself permission to take that route and that’s how the play resulted.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 3

Deborah Brevoort’s drama, inspired by the historical connection between Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein, is uplifting but ultimately a little teachy. The hidden star of this production is Larry Paulsen as the vinegary, steely Abraham Flexner, founder of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Paulsen/Flexner patiently endures a moment when it appears that he needs to have Jim Crow explained to him.

A unsettling two-hander by Joseph Dougherty concerns Chester Bailey, an ironworker (working in a WWII shipyard) who has suffered a harrowing industrial accident, and Philip Cotton, the psychiatrist charged with restoring Chester to some degree of mental health. Chester, played with goofy naïveté by Ephraim Birney, has developed a sort of hysterical seeing that tells him his physical disability is not so severe. Like Dysart with Alan Strang, the peppery Dr. Cotton (John Leonard Thompson as a last-minute fill-in at this performance) makes his peace with an outcome in which “there is no kindness.”

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • My Lord, What a Night, by Deborah Brevoort, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Chester Bailey, by Joseph Dougherty, directed by Ron Lagomarsino

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 2

In Greg Kalleres’s deceptively simple drama, Victoria (Julia Coffey) and John (Chris Thorn) are a successful couple in Indianapolis, living a carefully constructed narrative of how they came to be. Sometimes that narrative papers over a flaw—a memento of an Africa trip that is/was less than perfect—and sometimes it depends on a shared mirthless joke about shopping at Pottery Barn. The delicate balance of their lives is at risk of toppling when, driving home from the theater on a rainy night, Victoria hits something in the road and drives on without stopping.

What did they smash with their car? A deer? A suicidal stray dog? A person? Sometimes what you think you see is wrong, and some reflection brings clarity.

The arrival of their friend Lynn (Megan Bartle), pursued by the man who she is trying to break up with, Alex (Tom Coiner), has a paradoxically stabilizing effect. Lynn seems to enter relationships for the dubious pleasure of ending them, as illustrated by the story of her first date with Alex, in which she asks him to role-play becoming a ex.

John and Victoria return in their minds to the traffic accident, and stitch together their common version. As he says, “it doesn’t matter what story you choose to believe, as long as you both believe in the same story.”

There’s a fine side story about recommending a book to someone (Gravity’s Rainbow in this case) that you yourself haven’t read. It resonates with an anecdote told by classmate Johnnie in an acting workshop many years ago.