The Theremin is the ethereal-sounding electronic instrument often used in science-fiction films. ( Think of the theme music for the original Star Trek. ) This is ironic, perhaps, the life of its inventor, Russian electronics genius Lev Sergeivitch Termen, seems like a work of science fiction itself. Termen ( 1896-1993 ) lived in Russia and the Soviet Union most of his long life, except 1928-1938 in the United States, where he renamed himself Leon Theremin and scandalized society by marrying a Negro ballerina. She was the second of three wives in a picaresque life of close escapes, financial shenanigans, espionage ( he invented electronic spying ) , pioneering electronic music ( he created Theremin orchestras and was soloist with the New York Philharmonic ) and political fortunes tied to the whims of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Playwright: MDeegan ( sic ) . At: Oracle Productions, 3809 N. Broadway. Phone: 773-244-2980; $18. Runs through: Aug. 3. Termen Vox Machina. Photo by Laura Smith.
It's all recounted in Termen Vox Machina, but you'll learn much of it indirectly and not literally. A radio play intentionally written for the stage, it's the story of a shadowy life told in glimpses and impressions rather than as facts-and-dates or chronological history. Few situations are fully explained, few characters are completely charted, yet the total effect is nearly wonderful and certainly highly theatrical. The work jumps off from Termen's middle years after his return to the Soviet Union ( 1938 ) and after World War II. In his fevered brain, Termen conducts an ethereal review of his life, loves and times by channeling the radio waves he employed in his scientific work. He constantly must 'retune' and seek 'a steady frequency' as Lenin, Stalin, his wives, other liaisons and his daughter all appear before him ( although his precise relationship to each woman isn't always discernable ) .
In an unusual and creative theatrical presentation, the sound and voices of the 85-minute show are entirely pre-recorded by actors from the Filament Theatre Company in Los Angeles, which created the work, and physically performed by Chicago actors who brilliantly lip-sync all the dialogue even as several play multiple roles. The scenic design ( Tyler Burke ) features at least five ( maybe six? ) layers of curtains made of semi-transparent plastic sheeting. Actors step back and forth through them, creating increasingly diffuse and ghostly images with each layer of removal, lit with eerie moodiness by Mac Vaughey and Eric Van Tassell. There's even an ominous figure with a light shining from his mouth. Also, some figures appear in video ( by Gimpydog Productions ) , sometimes projected on the body of another actor. Carl Wisniewski leads the hard-working ensemble as Termen. Wonderfully expressive and physical, he sweats buckets in the intimate 35-seat storefront, helping to create not only the mood of old-time radio mysteries but also the expressionistic confusion of memory.
Termen Vox Machina is off-Loop at its best, a creative and surprising objet d'art.