Gallery Secrets at the Natural History Museum

by Selene Santiago
Staff Writer

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Theater as diorama, diorama as performance locked in an architectural resin of time.  Chalk Repertory Theater celebrates 100 years of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County with four original comedies and dramas written by Los Angeles playwrights.

In the spirit of the show, I will act as your theatrical docent and walk you through each of the rotating pieces as I experienced them:

Performed in the theater after hours, parking was a breeze ($8).  The dirt path from the parking lot led to the all glass portion of the museum and a giant projected image of a dinosaur greeted us as we made our way into the gift shop.  Inside the museum we were handed one of four colored programs (white, yellow, pink, or blue) that designated with which group we would be experiencing the show.

UNDER THE GLASS was in the 1978 Gem and Mineral Hall (Written by Zakiyyah Alexander and Directed by Jeff Wienckowski).  I may be biased, being the daughter of a Geologist, but the gem and mineral room has always been one of my absolute favorite places in the museum.  Entering the darkened room, I wonder how I will be able to focus on the performance when there are such magnificent riches shining all over the place!  We catch a man’s voice and are lured toward the back of the hall.  We find the owner of sound and he’s sitting on the floor, leaning on a podium, mumbling to himself.  This is the Colonel (Charles), a scientist who, according to his joie-de-vivre wife, Marie, has made this room his life, “If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were having an affair.”  Under the Glass is a deeply intimate examination of life and the obsessive passion one can have with his/her craft.  At first intake, the Colonel just comes off as an OCD collector who has neglected his wife but as the short story unfolds, we learn that he’s been obsessed with not only mining for his legacy, but also the greatest gift he could give his wife, immortality.

Writer, Zakkiyah Alexander, managed to make me laugh, get weepy, and get snagged in the existential quandaries of life all within 20-something minutes in a room that would otherwise keep me totally enthralled about the mysteries of our planet.  Actors Tony Amendola and Blaire Chandler are just superbly magnetic from beginning to end with a chemistry that lends to the success of this intimate play.  Effectively staged by Director Jeff Wienckowski, the audience was able to absorb the various parts of the Gem and Mineral Hall while staying completely focused on the story.  HISTORICAL FACT:  the characters namesakes are based on General Charles Forman and his wife Mary.  General Forman made the first mineral donation to the Natural History Museum three days after it opened in 1913.

PROM SEASON was in the Dinosaur Hall (Written by Boni B. Alvarez and Directed by Jennifer Chang).  Two young girls in the excited throes of prom night guide us from the Gem and Mineral Hall to the Dinosaur Hall.  We stop here and there as they pull audience for pictures that they post immediately to Facebook and Instagram.   In the Dinosaur Hall we are greeted by large relics as we wait for the show to start.   We mill around, read signs, step back to take in the enormity of the dinosaurs when the characters suddenly enter the room: Yesenia and Melvin.  We quickly learn that Melvin is a sexist macho trying to get laid under the bones of a giant dinosaur but is thwarted by a security guard who catches him and Yesenia.

Prom Season offered no insight into the museum nor historical facts about Los Angeles like the other pieces did.  The story was fragmented, culturally derivative (I swear brown people have stories about things other than unintended pregnancy, regret, absent fathers in prison, machismo, girls that speak ghettoese, and lecturing elders) and felt incomplete.

A VAST HOARD was in the Rotunda (Written by Tom Jacobson and Directed by Janet Hayatshahi).  After a significant pause from the previous performance, magic walks into the Dinosaur Hall in the guise of a Victorian-dressed woman with a thick accent.  She talks about dinosaurs and ghosts and impressions left behind when meat falls from bones.  She is fun and informative and transports us to the Rotunda where two men under the gorgeous Three Muses sculpture are having a heated discussion about paintings gifted to the museum by one of the men, Harris Newmark.  It is 1913 and the eve of the museum’s grand opening.  The Museum Director, Frank Daggett, is pleading/bargaining with Newmark to allow the museum to keep the paintings and include them in the art gallery.  Newmark insists on taking the paintings back for personal reasons until a mysterious Artist, Julia Bracken Wendt, aides Daggett in his quest to open the museum with a complete art collection.  Upon shaking hands with Newmark, Wendt has a vision of his past and speaks of his late wife, Sarah.  We learn that the woman in black who led us to this happening is Newmark’s dead wife.  When Wendt is hit with visions, Sarah circles nearby with a lantern in hand.  This was almost too schmaltzy for me at first but the actors managed to bring me along for the mystery and I appreciated the use of a turn-of-the-last-century obsession with mysticism, mesmerism and magic.

I thoroughly enjoyed the historical enactment and felt the excitement of the museum’s impending opening.  All of the characters are based on real people who were the movers and shakers of science and art in early Los Angeles.  Wendt was the sculptor of the Three Muses statue. Daggett was the first Museum Director and Newmark played a significant role in leading Los Angeles into being a major metropolis.  The costumes were also quite fun to examine.

Katherine Sigismund & Joel Gelman in SKINS AND BONES

Katherine Sigismund & Joel Gelman in SKINS AND BONES

SKINS AND BONES was in the African Mammal Hall (Written by Ruth McKee and Directed by Andrew Borba).  A modern-day theatrical Docent leads us through the new (as of July 14th) “Becoming Los Angeles” exhibit and shares staff ghost stories about the museum.  She laughs nervously as she tells a few anecdotes and I appreciate her naturalness.  Suddenly we see a woman dressed in 1920s clothing down the hall we are walking and she shouts a name “Henry?” then disappears into the museum.  We are led to believe that we have just seen a ghost. We go a different way and the same woman appears, “Henry??”  We follow her to the African Mammal Hall that is otherwise dark, save the lit dioramas of taxidermy African mammals and boxed lights that illuminates the space in front of the Greater kudu diorama.

The woman is Hildy, a dedicated Paleontologist who works at the Museum and Henry is her co-worker and fellow Scientist comrade.  It’s after hours and Hildy’s commitment to her work, and Henry’s nap in the Hall, has gotten them locked in the museum.  The stylization from costumes and acting lends to the setting of 1929, and a very cute love story unravels between the two scientists.  Most touching is that Henry is a modern man who is willing to go to any length to win the hand of Hildy—even if it means quitting his post at the museum so they can marry (apparently early twentieth century LA County employees couldn’t marry each other!).

Gallery Secrets is a fantastic juxtaposition of science, art, and history in Los Angeles.  As someone who has a background in science, practices art, and has a deep fascination with history, I adored the experience!  If you enjoy even one of the three, you’ll be absolutely tickled at hanging with Chalk Repertory Theater at the Natural History Museum after hours.  Get thee to the museum!

Gallery Secrets runs September 21st – October 13th at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90007).  Tickets at chalkrep.com.

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