Annex Theater transports 'Flatland' into a new dimension
By By Jennifer James
Jan 26, 2016 | 10:55 AM
Arms rigid at their sides, three actors flip around with each step as they move forward and back on a runway, confined to a single line. Thus is the reality of the denizens of Line Land, anthropomorphized geometric forms who are helplessly constricted as the two-dimensional shape Chromatistes blinks in and out of their one-dimensional view. Evan Moritz's "Flatland," adapted from Victorian novella of the same name, stretches from dimensions zero to 10, framing social commentary with the mathematical abstractions of these higher and lower dimensions.
The two-dimensional world of Flatland is one of strict social hierarchy. The "small triangles" sit at the bottom of the social ladder, as status increases with larger angles, all the way up to equilateral triangles and their three "perfect" sides. From there, the many-sided polygons make up the rest of the social structure and the perfect circles sit at the top as an all-powerful ruling clergy class. The protagonist, Chromatistes (played by Caroline Preziosi), is a circle who preaches the gospel of color to the shapes of Flatland. She abhors the oppression built into her world and aims to eliminate social differences by asking all shapes to color their sides, which would prevent sight recognition—a crucial foundation of the higher polygons' rule—by shape alone. But this endeavor changes when Chromatistes is visited by a three-dimensional sphere (Trustina Fafa Sabah) who opens her eyes to the higher dimensions.
Published in 1884 to little notice, Edwin Abbott's novella "Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions" came out 20 years before Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity and 30 years before the development of general relativity. At the time, science wasn't particularly interested in higher dimensions. What was for Abbott an interesting literary device would become one of the most important scientific revolutions of all time. Einstein's theory of relativity combined space and time into a four-dimensional system and, ever since, physicists have been struggling to wrap their minds around movement in dimensions beyond our own. Abbott's conceptualization of a two-dimensional world's limited perception of our own three-dimensional universe was an early step toward the methods of abstraction involved in higher-dimensional thinking.
Abbott's novella never takes us beyond the third dimension. The characters in Moritz's adaptation, however, travel all the way up to the 10th dimension—it is here where Annex takes the story from its Victorian roots and bring it to the forefront of modern science. General relativity is our most complete theory of gravity, describing gravity as a warping of four-dimensional space-time. Around the time Einstein developed general relativity, physicists also began developing the theory of quantum mechanics. Where general relativity dealt with the very large, quantum mechanics explained the very small. And in the years since Einstein, quantum mechanics has explained the other three fundamental forces of our universe: electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. However, despite huge efforts to do so, physicists have been unable to develop a theory of everything that describes all four fundamental forces.
This is where the 10 dimensions of Moritz's "Flatland" come in. One of the more promising attempts to design a theory of everything is string theory, which uses one-dimensional strings to describe the point particles of our universe. But in order for string theory to work mathematically, there need to be dimensions beyond just the four dimensions of Einstein's space-time. These extra dimensions are compact and on scales much too small to be detected by modern technology. In the director's notes, Moritz reflects on working with S. James Gates Jr., a preeminent researcher in superstring theory, in order to form a modern conceptual framework for the adaptation.
With co-director Isa Leal, Moritz creates a striking visual interpretation of varying spatial dimensions. Designed by Douglas Johnson, the stage is a narrow runway running the length of the room between the audience's seats. Grids project onto the stage and, during different scenes, two walls raise and lower like wings, at times allowing us only to see the actor's feet. But the actors (almost all of whom rotate between two or three different roles with ease) are not always constricted to the runway; they jump from floor to stage to express the invisibility of beings in higher dimensions to those in lower dimensions. Upon Chromatistes' first introduction to a being of a higher dimension, she is surprised by the Sphere's ability to grow and shrink. In Flatland, the Sphere is seen as a circle, but in the third dimension, she is a series of circles of varying size stacked together, causing her to appear to change size as she moves up and down.
Sharp yet subtle details like these illustrate abstract concepts without demanding much mathematical fluency from the audience. Choreography plays a significant a role in identifying the shape and properties of the characters. The two Qs (fifth-dimensional guides played by Eric Park and Ren Pepitone) are in a constant state of movement, sometimes performing twirling acrobatics as one lifts the other into the air, indicating greater depth and dimension to their form—a ballet, almost, flowing to the Nudie Suits' celestial score. At other times, the choreography feels merely abstract for abstraction's sake—like when the characters break out into floating motions that go on far too long.
Kevin Blackistone's projections cover every surface in the theater to facilitate the interactions between dimensions. In her first visit to Space Land, the world of three dimensions, Chromatistes watches the people of Flatland as shapes projected over the audience. Susan MacCorkle's all-white, beautifully constructed costumes highlight the increasing complexity of higher dimensions. The citizens of Flatland wear minimalist costumes sculpted to display their basic shape. The 3 Js—higher dimensional beings that serve as interdimensional judges (Carly Bales, Lee Conderacci, and Jess Rivera)—wear a single costume, connecting their bodies with draped and fringed fabric, their faces covered by lined visors. Though portrayed as separate characters, they move in sync, in what seems like an attempt to project higher-dimensional shapes in three dimensions—similar to the cubes that make up the net of a four-dimensional tesseract.
The social commentary on the artificial social structures we limit ourselves to is timeless, but Annex's "Flatland" brings Abbott's original commentary into the 21st century. Now, with the frontiers of physics expanded far beyond the dreams of even the greatest physicists of Abbott's time, the story—quite literally—takes on new dimensions. A multisensory delight for math-phobes, mathematicians, and every other dimension of theatergoer, the production expresses the beauty of mathematics and the necessity of new perspectives—and the inevitable resistance by the old guard.