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Thursday, September 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

"Louis Slotin Sonata": Tumultuous and bubbling drama

Seattle Times theater critic

The facts: At 3:20 p.m. on May 21, 1946, in a government atomic-weapons lab in Los Alamos, N.M., the young Canadian physicist Louis Slotin was conducting a demonstration with plutonium for some colleagues. His hand slipped. A heat wave passed over the room; a blue glow flashed. And within seconds, Slotin received a lethal dose of radiation.

From these and many other documented facts, Seattle playwright Paul Mullin composed "Louis Slotin Sonata," a provocative fantasia.

In the Seattle premiere of the play by Empty Space Theatre, director John Langs has fully detonated Mullin's script in a tumultuous, tour-de-force staging that spreads plenty of intellectual and emotional fallout.

"Louis Slotin Sonata" bubbles and fizzes with scientific theory and moral inquiry, factoids and morphine dreams.

Don't fret about the wonky quantum physics jargon and pretentiously inscrutable "sonata" format. At its own plutonium core, this is a micro/macro meditation on how brilliant, thoughtful people came to invent the instrument of humanity's wholesale destruction. And it's about how we live with that "license to kill" (to borrow from Bob Dylan).

Slotin's tragedy was dramatized fictionally in the A-bomb history movie "Fat Man and Little Boy." But "Louis Slotin Sonata" is an inherently theatrical experience. Mullin's jigsaw puzzle of a script gives a realistic account of how the cocky, somewhat foolhardy but very likable Slotin (played by Paul Morgan Stetler) made his fatal mistake, and his resultant decline.

But such docu-scenes are one part of a mutable, nonlinear collage of live rewinds and replays, film and slide bits, orations by a jealous, white-suited God, ominous comments by Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer (who famously quotes the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds") and more.

Coming up

"Louis Slotin Sonata," by Paul Mullin, produced by Empty Space Theatre and Double Duck Productions, Wednesdays-Sundays through Oct. 7, Lee Center for the Arts, 1201 12th Ave., at East Marion Street, Seattle; $10-$30 (206-547-7500 or www.emptyspace.org).

A favorite bit: the cast dancing with apocalyptic abandon to the rousing big-band tune "Sing, Sing, Sing."

The postmodern barrage of info and imagery ostensibly places us in the dying Slotin's opiated brain, as he struggles with guilt and fear and "pieces together" what's befallen him (and humankind).

But the play also shrewdly evokes a World War II state of mind. The darkest historical figure is the notorious Nazi physician Josef Mengele, "the angel of death" who perverted science with ruthless biogenetic experiments on Holocaust victims.

Having Slotin, the son of Orthodox Jews, identify with and morph into Mengele is tough stuff. But Langs and his hard-driving cast make this (and other tangents) fly.

Graced with Connie Yun's splendid lighting, the show also smartly exploits the raw, multilevel versatility of the Empty Space's new Seattle University venue.

Stetler gives a breakout multifaceted performance here — even if he's superficially miscast as the Yiddish-speaking Jewish son of Philip K. Davidson's pious Israel Slotin. The well-oiled ensemble as a whole deserves much credit, with standout turns by Kate Czajkowski and Shawn Law.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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