The significance of ‘Insignificance’

Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio walk into a hotel room. Defunkt Theatre seeks big ideas in a 1982 play.

History repeats. Leaders consolidate power until they lose it all. New scientific discoveries overturn the way we look at the world and then become taken for granted. Society claims progress for women while still treating them as objects. We see these patterns but never really seem to learn how to avoid them. Defunkt Theatre opens its season looking back at our own history with Terry Johnson’s 1982 play Insignificance.

Set in a hotel room in 1950s New York, the show centers on four of the most iconic characters of the era: Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy, and Joe DiMaggio. Due to liberties Johnson takes with history the characters are referred to simply as The Professor, The Actress, The Senator, and The Ballplayer. While they are ostensibly the historical figures they represent, they are also ciphers for Johnson’s exploration of politics, celebrity, and science.

Tabitha Trosen as The Actress, Gary Powell as The Professor. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Insignificance is a show about ideas. The light plot revolves around The Professor (Gary Powell), beset on one side by the anti-Communist Senator (Nathan Dunkin) and on the other be the advances of The Actress (Tabitha Trosen).

Portland’s new theater season is offering a lot of shows that grapple with important issues but very few have set out to try and engage with the political climate like Defunkt has set out to do. While there are some definite parallels between America 2017 and the 1950s of Insignificance, such as the threat of nuclear war and government authoritarianism, they don’t feel strong enough to say this production is really tapped into our current terrifying political climate. The play is concerned with a lot of other big ideas, like human connection and the shape of the physical universe, which dilutes the political connections.

All these abstract ideas weigh the show down in the first half. Combined with its naturalistic presentation it feels like the characters are just tools to get across ideas, entering and exiting as the script demands.

Yet the cast put in some strong performances, especially in the second half, when the play’s emotional stakes finally become clear. Powell (in a distractingly bad wig) captures the gravity of The Professor, a man burdened by the years and the implications of his life’s work. Trosen brings a lightness to the show that captures the humor of the script while managing to hint at the deep trauma of her iconic character. Morgan Lee plays The Ballplayer as a force of nature, pure Id.

Dunkin’s performance stands out. He plays The Senator as smart, arrogant, incredibly calculated, and ruthlessly efficient. He’s someone who understands the failures of the system but will do anything to uphold it. The audience can feel the danger he represents when he’s onstage.

For a show about so many big ideas, and its sense of how small we are, the production often struggles to capture that sense of scope, but hits the mark a few times. During The Actress’s explanation of the theory of relativity the hotel room is transformed with just some simple lighting and scenic design tricks into a room that actually feels outside time and space. And director Andrew Klaus-Vineyard manages to evoke the apocalyptic sense of doom at the end of the show that leaves the audience unsettled as they walk out.

It’s important to mention that Defunkt’s entire season is pay-what-you-will. For a company to take these kinds of risks, both artistically and financially, should be commended. Insignificance might not be the play that truly grapples with the politics of 2017, but it still rings true.


Insignificance continues at Defunkt Theatre, behind the Common Grounds Coffee House at 4319 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., through Nov. 18. Ticket and schedule information here.






One Response.

  1. Eric Sloane says:

    This unsettling, adult-themed play deserves much good word of mouth publicity. And to have not only this play,but the entire season offered on a pay-what-you-will basis is extraordinary.
    Well done, all!

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