October 4, 2009

Dubious discovery drives Steppenwolf's original drama

One summer day in 1912, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson sauntered down to a gravel pit abutting his local golf course and made a discovery that shook the anthropological world for the next half century.

The fragments of an ancient humanoid skull and jawbone Dawson unearthed in East Sussex unleashed a media frenzy. Scientists hailed the discovery as the “missing link” and nationalists rejoiced in the evidence that, indeed, the first human was an Englishman. The British Museum championed the “Piltdown Man” as the pride of its collection, but American and continental zoologists questioned the authenticity of the find from its earliest days. The jaw, they said, looked suspiciously like an orangutan’s.

For Steppenwolf’s newest original production, ensemble member Eric Simonson takes this infamous hoax as his subject. Simonson’s Fake is an erudite and entertaining meditation on the conflicting natures of faith and science, using both the “discovery” and subsequent exposure of the Piltdown Man as its example.

The play opens in the study of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s East Sussex country house, where Conan Doyle (Francis Guinan) has assembled the various players of the Piltdown discovery: Dawson (Larry Yando); Arthur Smith Woodward (Alan Wilder), the head of the British Museum; Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Coburn Goss), a French Jesuit priest and anthropologist; and Rebecca Eastman (Kate Arrington), a famously emancipated American journalist. Conan Doyle assembles this group for a classic whodunit moment: “Someone has faked the Piltdown Man, and he is in this room!” Eastman is invited by Conan Doyle to serve as the detective, to use her skills as an investigative journalist to expose the skull as a hoax on the international stage. All of the players are mightily offended by Conan Doyle’s accusations, especially given Sir Arthur’s infamously credulous essays on faeries and spiritualism.

The action then moves forward 40 years later, when Jonathan Cole (Guinan), a British anthropologist, and Doug Arnt (Goss), an American scientist, set about destroying the legitimacy of Piltdown once and for all. The two collaborators continue to be haunted by the events that occurred in Conan Doyle’s study, which eventually lead the men into a love triangle with Katarina Meras (Arrington), Jonathan’s past student and current fiancée.

Each actor in the production performs a role in both the scenes set in 1914 and those set in 1953. These double roles allow the actors to really stretch their dramatic muscles, switching between characters that are, in some cases, complete opposites. While the entire ensemble excels at their craft, special recognition should go to Francis Guinan, who perfectly inhabits both Conan Doyle, the boisterous Scot, and Cole, a sad sack academic. Larry Yando gives two excellent comic performances as the preening and lascivious Dawson and as an overly excited Cockney newspaperman.

Every character in Fake is seduced by the glamour of the Piltdown Man, which inevitably leads to both tragedy and revelation. Scenes between Jonathan and Katarina at the end of their relationship are devastatingly heartbreaking, and pair nicely with the more energetic disagreements between Conan Doyle and Eastman. The contrapuntal structure of the play is almost symphonic, with each scene serving to amplify and complement those preceding and following.

None of the action would be believable, however, without seamless scene and costume changes. Rip-away period costumes designed by Kärin Kopischke are both beautiful and utilitarian, especially those designed for Kate Arrington. Sets designed by Todd Rosenthal dissolve and rearrange themselves into extremely detailed rooms, transforming between a country manor, the British Museum, and Jonathan Cole’s 1950s London flat within a matter of seconds.

Last year, Steppenwolf’s original production of August: Osage County made the trip to Broadway and picked up a slew of Tonys. With several of the same cast and crew members working on Fake, it would be unsurprising to see this production make the same trek. So save the plane fare and head up to North and Clybourn—this is Steppenwolf at its best.