Scientists acting out

The opening scene went something like this:

Setting: Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab building 17 cafeteria -- Fall 2009
Rocket Scientist #1: I do community theater.
Rocket Scientist #2: I almost minored in theater in college.
Rocket Scientist #1: Really? We should start a drama club here.
Rocket Scientist #2: I’m in.
Rocket Scientist #1: OK, good.

For Big Science types at APL, tilting too far to their logical, self-controlled left brains could be hazardous. But that’s less of an issue since the curtain was raised on the APL Drama Club by mission designer Chris Dong and fellow space department member Dawn Moessner, a mission design analyst.

About a year after the scene above, the first production, a comedy called “Said and Meant: Ten Short Plays About Language and Misunderstanding,” by Randy Wyatt, was performed in APL’s Kossiakoff Center and enjoyed a repeat performance at Laurel Mill Playhouse.

No wonder. It’s described as “a farce dressed up as Greek tragedy, a soon-to-be-wed couple seeking counsel-free counseling, a hapless suitor learning how complex a simple phrase can be, or four actors desperately trying to fit 32 awkward silences into ten minutes.”

Just use your imagination. And also imagine the fun it must be to participate.

“My congratulations to the entire APL Drama Club for coming into being and adding to the richness of our social/recreational/cultural clubs. One of the nice things about being at APL is the friendships that form around shared interests,” wrote an audience member in an online message board after the “Said and Meant” debut.

Lynn Reggia agrees with the common interest sentiment. The club’s production manager may work in computer science, but her first love is music. She has degrees in both.

“I’m lucky enough to a have a job I like, which allows me to follow my real love of music and drama evenings and weekends,” she says. Not that the drama club requires that much time -- a couple of hours of rehearsal a couple of times a week for a few months, twice a year.

APL thespians haven’t tackled “Julius Caesar” or anything else by Shakespeare  yet. So far, they’ve favored humorous works, including the hilarious Peter Sellers movie vehicle “The Mouse That Roared” (in which a tiny European country decides to regain financial stability by attacking the United States, losing the war and growing rich on foreign aid. But -- they win!)

Next came “Rumors,” by no less a laugh-meister playwright than Neil Simon, in which the deputy mayor of New York shoots himself (perhaps in the foot, but in any case not fatally) on his 10th anniversary. His wife is missing. Party guests, of course, become involved in the coverup.

The club has big dreams of musical comedy and even dinner theater someday, as well as (watch out, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company) the Bard of Avon himself.

With “Rumors,” the first time a run was extended to two weekends, physicist and club president Jeff Dunne feared that it would just be spreading out one weekend’s worth of audience over two. But he needn’t have worried. Many came a second time and brought friends.

“We want big audiences before we start to get serious,” says Dunne, although he himself authored the club’s most recent opus, “Fairy Tales Come to Life -- All at Once,” an audience-participatory fractured fairy tale mash-up performed at several area libraries and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Considering the source, it should come as no surprise that along with Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, the cast includes a Jedi Knight with a light saber, direct from “Star Wars.”

At a performance at the East Columbia Branch Library, 5-year-old Katherine Johnson, of Columbia, was chosen to be one of the magical creatures who transport Jack (of Beanstalk fame) to another part of the forest. “It was fun to be a fairy!” she said beaming afterward.

(After the first performance, the kids did have one complaint: Good Jedis don’t use red light sabers. Even genuine outer space mavens, it seems, don’t know everything about galaxies far, far away. Following such expert advice, they located a blue weapon for subsequent performances.)

Scott Lichtor, whose day job is in “electronic warfare stuff,” came to APL directly from Washington University in St. Louis about two years ago and joined the drama club because he knew someone in the group. With little drama experience, he nonetheless snagged the starring role of Jack.

Lichtor, Julia Andersen (Red Riding Hood) and others played to their audience with a mixed-up plot in which Andersen donned her hooded cape and skipped off to discover the wolf living in Grandma’s cottage (a time-share next door to the disgruntled three pigs) where he’s designing a trendy clothing line.

Rest assured that all loose ends were -- ahem -- sewed up and the story concluded stylishly for all concerned. Now, following in the footsteps of many actors, Andersen, otherwise busy as Radiation Belt StormProbes mission ops team tech leader, is now going on to direct “The Curious Savage,” scheduled to open in April.

Any scripts other than self-written originals require the payment of royalties. Is it any wonder that the club’s one fundraiser so far was the appearance of mentalist Alain Nu? His mind-reading and spoon-bending feats wowed even APL intellects.

Currently the club numbers some 30 members, not all of whom actually tread the boards. As in any theatrical troupe, scenery builders, stagehands, prop manager (in a “You Can’t See Me” T-shirt), costumer and so forth are needed, too.

APL’s management has been “most supportive,” Dunne says. Director Dr. Ralph Semmel has attended most of the productions, according to Dunne.

While mathematician Lauren Kennell did admit to being recognized in APL’s hallways as Gen. Snippet from “The Mouse That Roared,” none of the thespians, they assure, have let the theater go to their already well-occupied heads.

No, they’re still the same lovable astrophysicists and systems engineers, albeit clad in artsy black APL Drama Club T-shirts. 

Copyright © 2018, CT Now