By Leia Squillace
To those who dare think that physics and theatre are unrelated, “A Warehouse in Rochester” begs to differ. The play doesn’t just discuss concepts of quantum theory, it seeks to make itself a model through which to explore them. This ambitious metatheatrical thought experiment questions the relationship between observation and existence, but gets tied up in its own experimentation before generating any conclusive data.
Erwin Hughes, portrayed by Diego Velazquez, awakens in a Rochester warehouse, bruised and bloody ‑ some might say half dead. With no one else in sight or earshot, he calls out, but then resigns himself to solitude. His lack of a scene partner is unsettling at first, until we realize that the absence of a concrete observer is precisely the point. Erwin’s erratic behavior is influenced by the fact that he believes, but can’t confirm, that he is being observed.
If you’ve taken an introductory physics course, you might have been wooed into the subject by its more accessible principles and experiments, such as the Heisenberg Principle. In case you managed to skip the course in high school, here’s a refresher:
Erwin Schrödinger devised a thought experiment in which a cat, a bottle of poison, and a device set to release the poison if an atom decays, are placed in a box. Given the unpredictability of the atom’s decay, while the box is closed, the system supports the possibility that the cat is both dead and alive simultaneously. Only when the box is opened does the wave function collapse into one of the two states. In layman’s terms, the cat can only be alive or dead once someone observes it as such.
This thought experiment led to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which Erwin (of the play) explains as the phenomenon that observing something determines what it is. He applies the concept to human behavior, leaving behind a trail of existential questions.
Bridget Mundy’s script tugs at the human implications of these abstract and, some might argue, inconsequential theories. Depending on your familiarity with quantum physics, you may catch these parallels right away, or may need to be smacked in the face with the metaphor as Erwin breaks down and cries out that he is “just a cat in a box waiting to be noticed.” This web of logic, housed in a Sartrean setting, is desperately in want of a guiding hand to tease out the ideas. David Charles’ directing, however, seemed more interested in coaxing an emotionally wrenching performance out of Mr. Velazquez than in parsing these ideas.
What the script ambitiously strives for in theoretical exploration, it lacks in a compelling narrative to tie it together. Erwin’s backstory is comprised of referential hints about his fixation on cats (his own appropriately named Einstein), his career manufacturing cat toys, and his obsessive physicist father. But outside of the gambling habit that led to his left‑for‑dead‑in‑a‑warehouse fate, very little is revealed about Erwin. The result is a character who is difficult to connect with, and feels little more than an element in an experiment.
For those other than the theatre‑loving physicist, the play’s strength rests on moments that apply theoretical paradoxes to questions to daily life. Why do humans change under observation? How would we behave with truly no one around? As Erwin insists upon his existence despite the lack of an observer, one is left to question one’s own state of existence without another person’s watchful eye.
“A Warehouse in Rochester”
Written by Bridget Mundy
Performed by Diego Velazquez
Directed by David Charles
November 16 at 7:30 PM
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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LEIA SQUILLACE is a director, devised theatre artist, and arts engagement administrator. Leia has developed new plays such as “GOOD KIDS” (Naomi Iizuka), “THE TRAIN” (Irene L. Pynn), and the Kennedy Center National Undergraduate Playwriting Award winner, “FAIR” (Karly Thomas). Most recently, Leia co‑developed a one‑woman show, “I KILLED THE COW,” which is currently touring nationally.