‘Contraption’ Examines Mad-Scientist Intersection Between Invention, Insanity

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CHICAGO – There’s a fine line between being batty and being brilliant. If there’s anything the world’s most brilliant inventors have taught us, it’s that most world-altering creators blurred that very line or visited the crazy farm before the world acknowledged their genius.

Photo credit: The Neo-Futurarium

Generated by a thought current from the Christian Bale film “The Prestige,” previous writer and first-time Chicago theater director Bilal Dardai created “Contraption” so society’s often-portrayed mad scientist could question the burdens and the blessings of his own devices.

In his Chicago play at The Neo-Futurarium, Dardai examines a titular character like we’ve seen in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” who is part “nutty,” part “absent-minded” and perhaps “sobered by tales of arrogant inventors who should have known better than to clone velociraptors” all while being made aware of his fanatical nature.

It wouldn’t stretch your imagination to imagine the passionate rage inherent in both Thomas Edison when he was creating direct current and Nikola Tesla when he was competing with alternating current. You could imagine they’d become so fixated on their creative divinations that missing meals or forgetting to bathe wouldn’t be alien.

But would they notice? Would their aptitude to blaze a path completely unknown to the world exceed their own ability to recognize the personal costs of their actions?

Are these people ever content or do they live a life full of frustration, failure, regret and loneliness? Are they just like the rest of us but shoved to an extreme? Dardai realizes: “How much difference is there between an inventor, an artist and somebody experiencing hallucinations? All three see things that aren’t there.”

In a vaudeville-style, screwball-comedy format, Chicago actor Kurt Chiang is Dardai’s science puppet who’s haunted by being forced to question his own sanity. Like real-life predecessor Wallace Carothers (the inventor of nylon), Chiang’s “Figure A” character also carries a vial of cyanide around his neck in preparation for suicide. Would he die for his pursuit for perfection?

Chicagoan Erik Newman sets him on a quest for the answer through the design of a convoluted machine that performs a hilariously simple action. Chiang’s perfectly panicky, unnerved character builds Newman’s pre-designed contraption before your very eyes.

While we won’t reveal whether the doohickey works or what it’s designed to do, the very action of creating the doodad sends Chiang on the brink of insanity and the border of bliss. He’s goaded by an antagonist (played by Joe Dempsey), guided by a curious conscience (Dina Connolly) and aided by an accomplice (Dana Dardai) in erecting a thingamabob he himself doesn’t understand all because he think his destiny is to do so.

Scripted into motion by his four human stage props, Dardai brings to life a wildly entertaining and thought-provoking play that’s cognizant of its own reality and consistent with the intersection between innovation and insanity. We’re left sympathetic to the dual-edged sword of genius and we’re reminded to respect so much we enjoy that came at such great cost.

“Contraption” runs through March 1, 2008 at The Neo-Futurarium at 5153 N. Ashland in Chicago. 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets cost $15.

© 2008 Adam Fendelman, HollywoodChicago.com

HollywoodChicago.com editor-in-chief Adam Fendelman


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