Few scientists enjoy instant name recognition, and when they do it's often more for historical than theoretical reasons. Consider J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "father" of the atomic bomb: Most people know he oversaw the Manhattan Project, the source of the original weapons of mass destruction that scorched Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some consider him a hero, crediting him with ending World War II, while others condemn him for unleashing a lethal creation. The surprise, for all, is the change Oppenheimer underwent after the bombs fell, and the resulting government response. During the "red scare" of the early 1950s, he was accused of being a communist because he opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb. This moment, when society succumbed to a fear wrought not by the escalating potential for mutually assured annihilation, but rather the calculated manipulations of its own government, forms the basis for Time Track Productions' latest project, The Train Wreck Is Proceeding Nicely, premiering this weekend at the Southern Theater.
"Oppenheimer didn't feel we needed to build bigger or more bombs," explains animator Steve Paul, who along with choreographer Paula Mann co-founded Time Track Productions. "He felt the knowledge that [the weapons] were out there should be enough to keep the forces of world destruction at bay. But that wasn't what those in power wanted to hear. If you disagreed with the administration you were branded as unpatriotic. It's the same kind of madness that's taking hold today. This is the sort of thing that can happen when people are afraid."
Indeed, the psychology of fear and control underlies many of the scenes in Train Wreck, a physical theater piece that integrates Paul's seamless flow of 1950s images, including propaganda films, nuclear test footage, and abstract visuals. Mann's tightly wound yet often darkly witty movement is inspired by the volatile energy created when atomic particles collide. During a recent rehearsal, the performers smile to the point of grimacing during a game show sequence and cavort with buoyant weather balloons while bombs explode on a screen behind them. They seem to form a post-Cold-War version of Cabaret in which optimism and cynicism are continually at odds with one another due to the uncertainty of current events. Doomsday is alternately yearned for and dreaded. The references to Oppenheimer and his colleagues (culled from Gregg Herken's biography Brotherhood of the Bomb and other sources) are not concrete, but the broader issue of dread, in its many forms, runs throughout the work. There's even a nod to Maurice Noble, the layout artist for many of the period's Chuck Jones cartoons that sometimes subtly mocked communist hysteria. "Noble's backgrounds were brilliant," says Paul, "but he was also paying homage to John Hubley, another animator who was brought up by the House Un-American Activities Committee."
Paul and Mann, who are married, have negotiated their collaboration to accommodate their research and different creative styles. "Steve is so interested in words. We meet at the verbal level and I translate it into movement images. I'm learning how to be a storyteller, but movement language is so abstract," says Mann. "Building a piece like this necessitates a collision of ideas. We're conscious of what's too much for the eye, and how these two mediums smash together." Many of the visual images found their way into the choreography, she observes, including "duck and cover," "bastardized salutes," and references to the shadows burned into the ground after the first atomic blasts.
"I did have to put myself into the position of thinking about loss," Mann continues. "It's such a large subject you don't know how to deal with it." For the artists, however, one way of coping is to embrace the humor within the strangeness, as well as the sense of déjà vu created when history repeats itself. "It's very heavy and depressing," concludes Paul, "but it's so absurd you have to laugh at it sometimes. When it comes down to it, you don't even need the weapons of mass destruction anymore. The government can say anything now and people fall happily in line with it."