Friday, August 02, 2013

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - The Unknown Matters - A Little Gem of a Play

Tweet review - I love it when a musical refuses to give us an unrealistic happy ending, but still gives us hope - 4.5 stars

An actor walks up to you in the lobby before the show and asks if you want to participate in a little pre-show survey.  One question: in three words or less, what are you waiting for? (other than the show to start)

What are you waiting for?

That's a damn good question.  And The Unknown Matters is a damn good show.

"What we lose and what we choose to leave behind."

Peter (Mark Sweeney, also the author and producer) and Sarah (Katie Bradley) are scientists with personal obsessions thwarted by a lack of funding. They combine forces along with Sarah's brother Eddie (Izzy Waid) who helps them get a crowdsourcing campaign going so they can jumpstart the two quests again. 

"85 percent of the matter of the universe is unknown.  We call this hypothetical mass 'dark matter.' Capturing it is my life's work."

Peter is out to capture the elusive dark matter.  Sarah is hacking into the Kepler Telescope to ferret out proof of a planet circling a distance star which might just be able to support life.  Their lab is an underground bunker, and their days are spent waiting patiently for proof to cross their line of sight.  They allow themselves snacks, and the games that go with them, at regular intervals, and also will break out a ukelele and burst into song. 

"When I first read about the Kepler space telescope, I lost my sh*t."

Peter's health takes an unexpected turn as the dark matter and distant planet continue to remain elusive.  Notions of mortality and how a life is spent, not wasted, abound.

What are you waiting for?

"I was waiting for a planet."
"And I was waiting for proof."

The Unknown Matters is a little gem of a play.  Sweeney's script and songs are just as notable for the things they don't say as the things they do.  This is a production that's not afraid of silence.  It trusts the audience to be able to fill in the blanks.  It doesn't hold your hand or spell things out, but it brings you along all the same.  We get to know the characters, we care about what they care about, we want them to succeed.  Watching the subtle way the characters go from being colleagues to being friends, never making a big deal about it, is lovely.  They take on each other's quests as their own and it just makes us like them more, and root for them. 

"I don't know a thing about love or spirituality but I can talk your ear off about dark matter."

There's a moment when the way someone reappears made me think they might be a ghost and I thought, "oh no!"  My relief that they were safe and sound made me realize how much I'd come to enjoy these characters' company and invest in them emotionally in such a short time.

"Tonight, I record the light!"

I'm torn, because part of me wants more of this story.  It's satisfying as it is, and I didn't feel cheated in any way, but still I found myself wanting more.  Always a good thing.  Never overstay your welcome.  Also, I wonder if watching these scientists not quite reach their goal only works in short form.  Would the audience become too frustrated at having their desires thwarted, not getting a "big" ending with a major triumph, if they invested more than an hour of their time?  It's hard to know.  Right now, that suspense works.  And if anyone could make it work in an expanded format, it would be Sweeney.  The current version of The Unknown Matters proves that.

"But the question is still there, right?  You need to keep looking."

Scientists work and wait for years.  They go down countless blind alleys and run into numerous dead ends.  Sometimes another person has to finish their work.  Sometimes the work is never finished.  But because it's about understanding the universe we live in, because it's about bettering the human condition, the scientists keep asking questions, and keep exploring.  That's a hard thing to dramatize.  But The Unknown Matters nails it.

"We are the explorers.  Stay curious!"

And it's a friggin' musical.  (I know it's kind of insulting of me to insinuate that a musical can't tackle thorny or intellectual subject matter, but I've seen musicals aim for a lot less and miss.  The fact that this one aims so high, and hits the target dead on, that's really impressive.)

"It's just a matter of time."

I worry for shows like this because they never shout "You have to come see me!"  The Unknown Matters is a quiet, intimate, funny, melancholy, lovely little show that could easily get lost in the shuffle of the Fringe noise machine (and I say that with love for the Fringe noise machine, of which I am a part).  But The Unknown Matters… matters.  You should see it.

4.5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Next performance, Saturday 8/3 at 10pm. 
Check out their Fringe show page for more.

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