Scientists take the stage with Simon farce

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Robert Friedman

It’s all systems go for the rocket scientists, systems engineers and cyber defense guys and gals at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel for the launching of their next theatrical production, Fools: a Comic Fable by Neil Simon.   

The scientists, engineers and others, all members of the APL Drama Club, will temporarily leave their spacecraft plans and microscopes to tread the boards in six performances starting April 10 at the APL’s Kassiakoff Center Auditorium.

The two-act comedy is about a Russian teacher who winds up giving lessons in a town that has been cursed with chronic stupidity for 200 years. When he arrives in the town, he finds people sweeping dirt from the stoops back into their houses and milking cows upside down to get more cream. Will the teacher break the curse, or will he succumb to it?

That is the question, said Lynn Reggia, the drama club’s production manager. While the play is set in a Ukrainian village in 19th century Russia, it conveys a “a timeless, very poignant message,” she said.

Funny or foolish?

Poignant, or not, the story goes that Fools was written by Simon because of an agreement he made during divorce proceedings (Simon has had five wives) that his ex would be given the profits from his next play. His alleged hope that Fools would not last on Broadway came true when the play closed after 40 performances.

Nevertheless, Reggia and others, if not the New York critics, have found the play very funny and more than suitable for the drama club, which will be mounting its 11th full-scale production since it was formed in 2010. Twice a year since then, they have put on all sorts of productions, from The Diary of Anne Frank toTwelve Angry Men to The Mouse that Roared.

Of course, acting isn’t all they do at the APL. The lab is a research and development center sponsored by Johns Hopkins University that works with the Department of Defense and NASA, among other agencies. Some 5,000 people are employed at the APL, which has researched and produced, among other things, spacecraft and unmanned drones for the military.

The 40 or so drama club members are almost all APL employees, plus an occasional friend or relative. Some have had experience acting on and working behind the stage, while others are novices. The presentations are free and open to the community.

Creative license

Reggia, who also has a degree in music, does not appear to believe that left brain (logic, self-control, math skills) and right brain (creativity) cannot coexist and get their respective acts together.

She believes, in fact, that there is “an amazing similarity between theater and science. While a lot of creativity is necessary to solve scientific problems, that skill is also necessary to put on a show,” said Reggia, who works as a human system engineer for the Navy.

“I get to go talk to sailors,” she said, “There can be a disconnect between engineers building systems and sailors using them. Since the engineers are not on the ships, they may think of things one way, while the sailors think of them another way. “I make sure the gaps get bridged,” she said.

Reggia said just about all those technical and scientific people at the APL, and certainly those in the drama club, are, well, just like you and me.

“We don’t think of ourselves as brilliant,” she said. We’re not just people with large glasses who are behind microscopes all day. We have as many other passions and are as artsy as other people. Many of us love the theater and want to take part as much as the next person.

“I’m lucky enough to have a job I like, which allows me to follow my real love of music and drama evenings and weekends,” Reggia said.

Fools: a Comedic Fable will be performed on April 10, 11 and 18 at 7:30 p.m., and April 12 and 19 at 2 p.m. There will also be a pre-show, which will start an hour earlier than the performances, that will feature a puppet-making station and improvisations, including APL scientists performing with puppets.  

Admission is free and no tickets are required. Performances take place at APL’s Kassiakoff Center Auditorium at 11100 John Hopkins Rd. in Laurel. For more information, see www.jhuapl.edu/drama or email drama@jhuapl.edu.

Members of the Applied Physics Lab’s Drama Club produce full-scale productions twice a year that are open to the public free of charge. Neil Simon’s Fools: A Comedic Fable starts on April 10.

Photo courtesy of the Applied Physics Lab