Like the Big Bang, Secret Life of Humans packs a wallop in a 90 minute show–a suddenly expanding intellectual universe about the history of mankind that blossoms before our eyes. With rich sound design, clever set changes, aerial work(!), and punctuated projections, this slice of science-theater leaves the audience with a lot to think about if not a little whiplash. The grand ambition of the piece drives our interest. It audaciously flings open 1000 doors of thoughts and ideas on why humans are the way we are and what kind of future we are marching towards (without really walking through any of the doors entirely). But the sense of possibility gives this devised show its momentum and spirit.
It juxtaposes the story of real-life mathematician and “television scientist” Dr. Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski against his theories of human development with a dash of inspiration from Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The show’s settings jump from university lecture, to bad date, to family mystery, to communion with ghosts. We are in the past, the way, way past, the present, and then left to ponder the future. Not all moments are equally strong but it moves at a clip and it is compulsively curious subject matter–what makes us human and how we got here.
The late Dr. Bronowski (Richard Delaney) is most famous for a BBC series he hosted from the 1970’s called The Ascent of Man in which he looked at the evolution of humans, science, art, and society. His grandson Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker) has always admired him but Bruno died before he was born. Jamie ends up on a date with an anthropology lecturer, Ava (Stella Taylor). The two are both a little lost. Ava’s has had a professional setback and Jamie is in the midst of grieving over his mother’s death. Jamie needs to finally clean out the family homestead which was once Bruno’s home and he’s avoiding it with this date. Ava becomes fascinated with the materials Bruno had locked up in his private study and with some nudging convinces Jamie to open this Pandora’s box of his family past.
The piece is strongest when focused on Bruno and the relationship between him and his wife Rita (Olivia Hirst). While we are aware it’s more than this man’s life we are contemplating–the leaps into early history as well as aerial imagery to give us physically a sense of the “perspective of Gods”–the framework built from Bruno’s life gives us a personal connection. The more we learn about him on the grand scale the more his small interactions balance that off. He may be a confident public intellectual on the radio but at home he can be wracked with self-doubt. He can solve complex mathematical equations but there are some things he cannot say aloud to the person who knows him best. There’s a quiet moment, where Rita just reaches out and takes his hand, and the unspoken between them fills the space. Maybe gestures like these give us a small understanding of what being “human” actually is.
The play’s main plot device is weaker. The date between Ava and Jamie sets into motion the unpacking of Bruno’s past for his grandson and us. But these two characters are drawn in broad strokes while in contrast Bruno and Rita present a deeply felt stage relationship. Putting aside the Tinder vs true love nature of who the couples are, Jamie and Ava may represent human experiences (grief and ambition respectively) but their symbolism stands stark contrast to the more beautifully wrought portraits of Bruno and Rita. The performers are all strong its just the mechanics of the storytelling feel more bald when it comes to the contemporary couple.
Such can be the challenge of devised work–making all the pieces work harmoniously. That said the physical production itself is remarkable and strengthens the material. Directors Bryne and Stanley smooth over the narrative bumps with this fleet-footed production. The well-crafted use of sound (by Yaiza Verona) gives us a strong sense of place whether we are on a train platform, a noisy restaurant, a TV set, or watching a flickering 16mm projector. Careful placement of large-scale projections (by Zakk Hein) illustrate Bruno’s lectures, Ava’s, as well as the objects they find in Bruno’s room. The projections also help shift the audience perspective from a flat back wall to an aerial plane we are experiencing from “above.” Cinematic devices on stage do not always work but here with the fluid movement of wheeled set pieces presenting like cross-cut edits and conceptual filmic “wipes” where suddenly an actor appears where previously was none, the language of film compliments the theatrical endeavor.
Massive questions get posed with Secret Life and there can be no easy answers. But simply giving thought to art and science, theater and reality, hypothesis and understanding, certainty and uncertainty, and the reasons why humans have evolved in the ways we have make this a rich exercise. It leaves you wanting to know more. Humanity’s persistent curiosity wins out.