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Screech boys
A new play introduces Brian Wilson to Leon Theremin

You may not know what a theremin looks like, but you’ve surely heard it. Among the tones made by the very first all-electronic instrument are the eerie screeches in cheesy mid-20th-century horror movies and the swooping introduction to the Beach Boys’ "Good Vibrations." This strange gizmo works by producing an electronic field that, as the musician’s hands break the frequency, sends out sounds ranging from human to animal to outer-space-worthy.

Created by the Russian inventor Leon Theremin (1897–1993), whose life and career spanned the 20th century, the instrument emits sounds that are almost as strange as Theremin’s life, which included stints in early Soviet intelligence and lengthy incarcerations in forced-labor camps. Now, two young Boston University playwrights are using him as inspiration for their new play, the fanciful Theremin, which premieres this evening (December 16) at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Benjamin Lewis and Duke Doyle met at BU and have been collaborating on Theremin for several years. Lewis explains that at school, where both of them focused on the performing arts, "a lot of the stuff we were working on was written by 50-year-old men 100 years ago. We wanted to tackle something together as writers, and we were looking for something that inspired us, and we stumbled across the story about this crazy Russian inventor. The more we researched, the more we became intrigued by it."

Intrigued enough to include another crazy visionary — Beach Boy Brian Wilson. In the play, the two are introduced, with Lewis playing Wilson to Doyle’s Theremin. Doyle says, "We discovered Brian Wilson was loosely involved in Theremin’s life at the end of his life, when there was a committee that went and retrieved Theremin for a big gala in New York. And Brian Wilson is such an interesting character, we started exploring him as the narrator." Lewis continues, "We found these parallels between their lives. Theremin gets put in a prison cell in Siberia; Wilson locks himself in a little room in California."

Other characters include Clara Rockmore, a student of the theremin (and Theremin) who became the instrument’s great virtuoso. If it sounds as if the writing partners were venturing into Surrealist territory, they counter that "emotional connection" among the characters is crucial to this play, though there will be plenty of recorded snippets of actual theremin music.

Michael Kaye, a teaching associate at BU’s School of Theater Arts, says he’s not surprised that Lewis and Doyle have been able to see their play through to production. "I had them in a number of classes," he recalls, those including acting class and a writing class that focused on adaptation. "They’re extremely bright and hysterically funny — that’s what I remember. They have strong theatrical instincts. They see the world as a playwright and director and actor, so it’s exciting to be around."

And then there’s the instrument that started it all. "We’ve come across some theremin players, and there’s a lot of different degrees of what being a theremin player means," says Doyle. "Anyone can be a theremin player — you just move your hands around."

Theremin is presented by Blue Cake Theatre Company this weekend, December 16 through 18, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 955 Boylston Street in Boston. Tickets are $10, or $5 for students with ID; call (781) 643-0277, or e-mail theremin_info@yahoo.com

Issue Date: December 17 - 23, 2004
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