Saturday, April 07, 2007

Science on stage

I saw a great play last week called Serendib -- I'd say anyone who loves science and lives in New York City should see it. It's playing at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where actors including Sarah Jessica Parker and Stanley Tucci started their careers. Here's my write-up about the play in The Scientist.

Humans and Monkeys, Center Stage
A new play captures the power struggles that can occur among troops of monkeys and the scientists studying them

A group of monkeys darts across the stage. "Kill, kill, savage him!" A female screams to her mate, Jasantha, encouraging him to attack a member of her own troop. "Savage his ears and face! Go!"

Jasantha jumps up to meet the third monkey face-to-face. "I rule over you!" he yells.

War music pervades the theatre, and a deadly fight begins.

This is a scene from a new play, Serendib, opening this week in New York City as part of the First Light Festival, a month-long celebration of science and technology-inspired theatre supported by the Sloan Foundation.

Written by David Zellnik, Serendib (which refers to the ancient Arabic word for Sri Lanka and the origin of the word "serendipity") is inspired by one of the longest ongoing primate studies in the world. Begun by zoologist Wolfgang Dittus in 1968, the Polonnaruwa project, set in the evergreen forests of Sri Lanka, studies the behavioral ecology, sociobiology, and population biology of toque macaques (Macaca sinica).

Zellnik, who is young, sharp, and exceptionally friendly, first visited Polonnaruwa in 2004 after deciding on a whim to volunteer for the non-profit Earthwatch Institute. He realized there was enough dramatic material entwined in the goings-on of the scientists and monkeys to write a compelling play. (Though the play was inspired by the power struggles Zellnik observed first-hand, he maintains that the plot and characters are entirely fictitious.)

The end result is an entertaining and insightful commentary on the challenges faced by field scientists, the limits of scientific objectivity, and the power struggles that can occur among troops of native monkeys -- and the scientists studying them.

In Serendib, the Polonnaruwa scientists are joined by a documentary film crew. To spice things up, the crew brings along a primate geneticist named Ramsov who is critical of the project's research methods, and he proceeds to charm a female scientist who had been involved with the project's scientific leader. At the same time, a parallel power struggle transpires among the troop of macaques the scientists have been observing.

The play debates the value of long-term observational scientific studies like the one ongoing at Polonnaruwa, as Ramsov argues that the scientists' data are anecdotal, not reproducible, and therefore don't hold up to the rigors of the scientific method. He also accuses them of anthropomorphizing the monkeys to such an extent -- citing their use of "Moonbeam," "Nugget," and "Tulip" as names for them -- that it interferes with their research. Naturally, the other scientists disagree, maintaining that their understanding of the monkeys' behavior is based on years of objective observations.

Although Zellnik has no scientific background, the science and scientific culture portrayed in Serendib are delightfully accurate, down to the detailed scientific references the characters make as they discuss their findings ("females inherit status from their mothers, and then wield it in teams," the lead scientist explains at one point about the monkeys). This is thanks to Zellnik's own meticulous research as well as the input of his two scientific advisors, husband-and-wife team Don Melnick, a professor of conservation biology at Columbia University, and Mary Pearl, a primatologist and current president of the Wildlife Trust. Both provided Zellnik with feedback on evolving versions of the manuscript, and Pearl has worked directly with the actors to ensure that they use their binoculars just as they would in the wild.

"They did a very good job of evoking the atmosphere of the field camp," said Melnick, who spent years at Polonnaruwa in the 1980s and described the tensions arising in such close quarters as "very intense." Pearl pointed out that the questions raised by the characters are "quite realistic."

Portraying the macaques also came with unique challenges. Zellnik chose to incorporate puppets handled by the same cast members who play the scientists, but designing them and choreographing their movements took some time. "I wanted to make sure they had dignity," he said. "They're really fierce, wonderful, soulful animals." Their hard work paid off -- the puppets move realistically and are both graceful and creative.

Serendib runs through April 22 at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Manhattan.


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