Joe Denk as Richard Feynman
Joe Denk as Richard Feynman
L to R: Joe Denk as Richard Feynman and Natalya Seibel as Miriam Field
L to R: Natalya Seibel as Miriam Field and Joe Denk as Richard Feynman
Sep 03-Sep 19, 2004
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Denk has it down to a science
- By Larae Malooly, Sun-News
There's nothing intimidating about quantum physics. No, really. At least, not when Richard Feynman is teaching it. For a brilliant and famous man who worked on the Manhattan project in Los Alamos and taught at Cal Tech, there's nothing intimidating about a physicist who is entertaining and approachable when teaching a notoriously tough subject.
In fact, you probably have a lot in common with Feynman. Life and nature delight him. He is a flirt. He resists authority. He goes to topless bars. A little music and the company of women come as easy to him as winning the Nobel Peace Prize and creating his own system for Quantum Electro Dynamics, or QED.
He, too, forgets to take his medicine sometimes. But when Feynman is confronted with mortality in Peter Parnell's "QED," we also identify with this real life character's struggle with terminal illness. The production, running now through Sept. 19 at the Black Box Theatre, captures human nature with a level of wit, grief, and poignancy that makes us befriend this lovable man.
In real life, Feynman was a true character and Renaissance man. So is Joe Denk, the robust actor who radiates with the energy of a nuclear atom as he tells stories, jokes, and teaches us a little bit about physics and mother nature while all alone on stage during the play's entire two hours. An New Mexico State University faculty member once taught by Feynman attested to how perfectly Denk exemplifies the beloved physicist.
Denk intensely studied hours of Feynman's lectures on videotape, matching his real New York origins and naturally charismatic demeanor to Feynman's appealing zest for life. It only scratches the surface of his flawless portrayal and the production's preparation.
Since May, "We've read books that Feynman wrote and books about Feynman. We watched videos and listened to cassettes of him giving physics lectures, we watched DVDs of interviews with him," said Director Ceil Herman. And to prepare for Denk speaking Russian and Tuvan dialect, "I wanted him to speak Tuvan correctly so we got a hold of a Tuvan Web site where they provided us with videos and DVDs and connected me with a person in New York from Tuva. We recorded her over the phone doing the Tuvan lines."
The entire crew became quite passionate about "QED." After all, "Joe was saying this is a PhD biologist (Herman) directing a PhD chemist (Denk) in a play about a PhD physicist." It simply had to be precise. And the performance shows it.
Bursting through Feynman's Cal Tech office door singing and playing bongos, Denk warms the audience with friendly eyes and charming inflections as a result. His whimsy is adorable. Yet when that zest is compromised, Denk's heart wrenching emotion when the illness strikes him or when reliving a painful past changes the entire timbre of the room.
Feynman's stories and abundant personality flow in an entertaining stream of consciousness produce so much imagery and humor that we forget Denk is the only person on stage. Yet emotions are further heightened during a bittersweet moment with physics student Miriam Field, played by lovely melodramatist Natalya Seibel.
Premiering in 2001 on Broadway with Alan Alda in the spotlight, "QED" is based on Feynman's own writings and close friend Ralph Leighton's book "Tuva or Bust." Paying homage to a genius who made physics simple and fascinating, who loved his late wife with romantic intensity, and who continues to teach everyone else about life, whether you sat in his classroom back then or sit in the Black Box Theatre this weekend.
Copyright 2004 Las Cruces Sun-News, a Gannett Co., Inc. newspaper.
'QED:' 'Brilliance and humility'
- By Jeff Barnet, Las Cruces Bulletin
Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize-winning physicist who worked on the atomic bomb when it was being developed at Los Alamos during World War II. He was also a first-class storyteller with a gift for gentle humor.
Actor Joe Denk captures the warmth and humility of Feynman the storyteller in "QED." a mostly one-man show that continues at the Black Box Theatre on the Downtown mall through Sept. 19. "QED" is the season-opener for the No Strings Theatre Co.
The play is set during one evening in Feynman's life in 1986. two years before his death. On this night. Feynman is scheduled to play the role of a tribal chief in the play "South Pacific"; meet with musicians and folklorists from the Russian Siberian Republic of Tuva. a lifelong dream; negotiate with NASA officials about the wording of his finding that a NASA error led to the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle; deliver a lecture on the subject "What We Know"; and learn from this doctors that yet another, potentially life-threatening surgery is required because of a tumor in his abdomen.
The play's engaging. non-linear exploration of these and countless other themes provide not only a fascinating look at the inner workings of a genius physicist, but also document the, history of the atomic age.
The effect of the bomb did not catch up to Feynman until many years after Los Alamos. He recounts sitting in a cafe in New York City and realizing that if he were at ground zero, miles of city blocks would be destroyed around him. Everywhere he goes he begins to think of as ground zero. he says. He remarks that he is amazed that people still create symphonies.
It is in the depth of his despair and burnout that Feynman realizes he will only keep learning if he rediscovers the joy and fun of solving scientific puzzles. From that point on. Feynman never seems to bog himself down in seriousness or thoughts of his own importance. It is one of many compelling speeches actor Joe Denk, in a tour de force, delivers throughout the two-hour show.
Denk began learning his lines for the play in February and began rehearsals with director Cell Herman in May. Denk and Herman said they studied 30 to 40 hours of films of Feynman. a popular physics professor at the California Institute of Technology. The goal was never to imitate Feynman, but to "keep the spirit of the person." Adopting a New York Jewish accent was Denk's limited" attempt at imitation.
His combination of brilliance and humility makes [Feynman] the most interesting character I've portrayed." said Denk, who has portrayed well over 50 characters in his acting career.
Feynman also treats the audience to a few interesting physics lectures he is credited with breakthrough discoveries in the field of quantum electro dynarnics or QED, which, true to form, he discovered by drawing pictures rather than working out equations and his philosophy of science, which for him means loving doubt and mystery more than certainty.
Feynman's gift as a teacher was his ability to explain the most abstruse concepts of QED to his students in simpler. captivating terms. At the time "QED is set, Feynman is at his height in his popularity with his students - what Denk refers to as Cal-Tech's "love affair" with Feynman - and for a brief time in the show he is visited by one of his under-graduate students from his Physics-X. or physics for non-majors class, who dailies with him in the professors office.
The student, Miriam - played by Natalya Seibel - seems to be infatuated with the famous physicist and he perhaps with her, but only for a moment.
"When he was married, he was absolutely faithful to his wives," said director Ceil Herman. "Some people have said the scene with Miriam is extraneous, but we disagree. She's in there to show his faithfulness, and to show him trying to lift himself out of depression."
The scene makes its point, but it is not nearly as powerful as Feynman's many, touching stories about his first wife, Arlene. who died of tuberculosis in Albuquerque while Feynman was still working on the bomb.
Denk, with his genial mug, captures the exuberant and subversive side of Feynman well, even down to the details of his bongo-playing and lock-picking. His love for Tuvan culture and language and the absurdities of navigating military and government bureaucracies also make for enjoyable stories.
Denk's Tuvan is authentic, according to at least one theatergoer, B.Z. Siegel. Ph.D., who is familiar with the language.
"QED" opens the fifth season for the No Strings Theatre Co. at the Black Box Theatre. According to Herman. Denk has starred in four of the five season-openers.
"QED" has a special significance for the cast and crew. The play is about a Ph.D. physicist played by a Ph.D. chemist (Denk) and directed by a Ph.D. biologist (Herman).
Vince Gutschick, a professor of biology at New Mexico State University, was once a student of Feynman's at Cal Tech. where he was a chemical physics major. "Joe Denk is the perfect reincarnation of Richard Feynman. he said. "The way he speaks like Feynman, the way he introduces ideas." "The play brought out his humanity. his way of doing physics which was his way of looking for truth in the world - Joe captured the spirit of Feynman. I felt like I was reliving my time with him"
Qed: Drums, cancer, bombs ... Genius
- by Maggie Adkins, NMSU RoundUp
Who knew that a physics lecture on quantum electrodynamics could be this interesting?
"QED," the season opener for the No Strings Theatre Company, proves that a great script, combined with the right actors, a determined director and a talented stage crew, can make physics fun and engaging.
"QED" is a one-set, one evening, nearly one-man play about a man who was so much more than one-note.
Richard Feynman - drummer, Nobel Prize winner, professor, author, scientist and co-creator of the atomic bomb, - is the focus of "QED." QED is of course short for quantum electrodynamics, the field Feynman studied and won a Nobel Prize for.
"QED" follows which an enthusiastic Feynman, played by New Mexico State University instructor Joe Denk, enters his office playing the drums and proceeds to work his way through a night of memories. He is, however, interrupted by a cancer diagnosis, a musical and a mystical country called Tuva that he wants to visit.
Feynman's emotional journey is peppered with insights into science, love and the joy of living. But because the play is about two hours long and full of references to quarks and other subatomic particles, in the wrong hands, Feynman's journey could prove rather wearisome.
Joe Denk makes the play incredibly accessible, creating a depth of humor, sadness and straightforwardness in what a former student of Feynman's, currently teaching biology at NMSU, said was a dead-on performance.
Director Ceil Herman said that when she read "QED," she immediately pictured Denk in the role. Once Denk accepted, he began memorizing his lines, in February. Rehearsals began in May.
Four months later, months filled with research into Feynman, his books, his recorded lectures and Tuva, a country swallowed by the former USSR that has a capital spelled without any vowels. "QED" is ready to turn Las Cruces on to science.
Natalya Seibel joined the rehearsals a few weeks into the process as Miriam Field, Feynman's student. Field serves as an "angel of mercy," Seibel said, reminding Feynman of the joy in life. She and Denk's performance together projects a sweetness, and the transition from Feynman alone to Feynman with his student serves to lighten the atmosphere and ground the play in reality.
Herman credits the accessibility of the play to Feynman himself. "He kept a very ordinary way of speaking; very natural," she said.
This humbleness makes for a very engaging character. "He's such a nice warm guy," Denk said. "People just fall in love with him."
So much so that there are countless clubs and web sites dedicated to this amazing man, not to mention this great play, "QED," that is opening tomorrow night at the Black Box Theatre
No seating plan has been posted.