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November 18, 2013
Review: Obedient Steel
Photo by Suzi Sadler.
Photo by Suzi Sadler.

"Obedient Steel" is a surreal and campy romp, now playing at the HERE Arts Center. Both highly entertaining and highly disconcerting, the play focuses on a group of scientists who are developing an atomic bomb.  It is less about those who would feel the bomb's most devastating effects than it is about those tasked with making it tick.  “Ash and muck,” is how one of the scientists describes a post-bomb landscape in one of the play’s many joke-laden scenes.

"Obedient Steel" is a production of Tugboat Collective, an experimental theater group based in Brooklyn that emphasizes acknowledging the presence of the audience in its productions. The cast of "Obedient Steel" disregards the fourth wall accordingly, addressing audience members directly as if they were present at the same party, giving them props to hold, and making prolonged eye contact. Cartoonish acting completes the meta effect.

The brazenly funny script, written by Chloe Brown and performed skillfully by the cast, further implicates the audience in this dangerous project. Not only are we in the top-secret lab, but now we are laughing cavalierly along. The dulcet ukulele, played all the while by Tugboat co-founder Eben Hoffer, further camouflages the actual intended result of the lab work.

The central characters are brilliant theoretical physicists with some pretty average insecurities and neuroses. The story initially focuses on the personal rivalries and romances of the lab team, all acted out in sitcom fashion. They reference Hiroshima casually, saying that they want to make a bomb capable of producing “ten Hiroshimas,” while workplace antics abound. An experiment eventually goes awry, forcing them to leave their cherished work behind.

The second half of "Obedient Steel" finds most of the team adjusting to life in the suburbs. They encounter the repression and disillusionment of American '50s suburban living -- a theme explored in numerous recent works (such as "Revolutionary Road"), but here with a few additional twists.  The characters must also deal with the repercussions of their earlier radioactive lab work, including covert surveillance by Frank, a bumbling government agent who keeps an eye on the scientists throughout the story. The geniuses who would have made the most destructive weapon ever must now struggle with the repression of mundane suburban life and their crumbling relationships.

Although "Obedient Steel" is set in the '50s, the themes of government spying and poorly considered consequences of technology certainly speak to a modern audience. "Einstein", another play staged a few months ago, similarly addresses the humanity and intentions behind the making of such a weapon. That play fell flat, though, telling the audience too much about Einstein’s noble intentions and the details of his physics. "Obedient Steel" leaves it up to the audience to be the judge, and there is much to consider once we are done laughing.

Performances of "Obedient Steel" continue through November 24th.  For more information, check out our full event listing here:

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Written by: Nina Lukina
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