Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Vera Rubin: Bringing the Dark to Light

Playwright:  William C. Kovacsik

Company:  Boulder Ensemble Theatre Compamy

Running Time:  1 hour 15 minutes (Varies:  includes talkback with actors and science information from the Fiske Planetarium staff) 

Date of Performance:  Saturday, January 23, 2016. 

To paraphrase a comment made to me by an English professor a long time ago, my ignorance of dark matter is extensive.  

I’m still in the dark many years later about William Butler Yeats, but I'm feeling slightly more comfortable with dark matter today.  Vera Rubin:  Bringing the Dark to Light (hereafter Vera Rubin) has the potential to bring a LOT of light to a LOT of people about dark matter.

For those who are not familiar with Vera Rubin, the astronomer, fear not.  Few of us are familiar with her.  While not completely unknown, she has been a critical part of astronomy since she discovered evidence of dark matter in the 1960's and 1970's.  While her evidence was controversial when introduced, dark matter in general, is now widely accepted by the scientific community.
Stephen Weitz, BETC Artistic Director, at The Fiske Planetarium.

Boulder Ensemble (BETC) has collaborated with the Fiske Planetarium for Vera Rubin, staging all the performances in the Planetarium.  It’s the ultimate venue for a theatrical lighting designer.  He or she has access to the most advanced lighting and projection equipment anywhere.  The Fiske can put 180 degree projections/lights on the 70 foot domed ceiling, complete with 8K resolution and surround sound.  Immersive is not an adequate adjective to describe the experience.

The Vera Rubin experience is twofold:  a compelling and inspiring story of an eminent but largely unknown woman scientist, and a powerful visual trip through deep space in search of dark matter.  Taken together, the story and the visuals are an immensely compelling theater experience.

The story of Vera Rubin is one of a pioneer overcoming ingrained discrimination.  Rubin was a complete outlier in the 1960’s; women scientists were rare, women astronomers rarer still.  Despite the resistance, Rubin kept proving herself capable and durable.  Vera Rubin is a true story.  In flashbacks, Rubin (portrayed by MacKenzie Sherburne), is rejected repeatedly (“Dr. No” is portrayed on video flashbacks by Justin Walvoord) simply because she is a woman.
MacKenzie Sherburne (Vera Rubin), Chip Persons (Isaac Newton).

The plot is pretty simple.  Vera has a dream, in which Sir Isaac Newton (Chip Persons) shows up.  Vera brings him up to date on more than 200 of years of science that has happened since he died. She shows him some amazing photos and animations explaining concepts that Newton could never have imagined.

The collaboration with the Fiske Planetarium is targeted for school children, with approximately 700 kids scheduled for field trips to the planetarium.  Those kids will see a superbly executed story that will unquestionably inspire some to go on to great things.  For that, the Fiske Planetarium and BETC deserve abundant credit.

For those of us who are not school kids (and very far from it in my case), Vera Rubin is still marvelous entertainment.  I’m assuming we’ve all seen spectacular photos from the Hubble Telescope at some point.  Frankly, though, that did not adequately prepare me for the Fiske Planetarium experience.

When the Hubble images are projected in 180 degrees on the domed ceiling, it’s jaw dropping.  The images seem to pop out off the dome and surround the audience in a stunning rainbow of color, light, and the deep black of space.  This is a light show that can stand alone, without the Vera Rubin story.  But as the backdrop to the story, the images are, well, stellar.  Pun intended.

The Fiske Planetarium and BETC have combined an inspirational story with universal appeal and stunning images of the actual universe.  If you have kids, taken them to Vera Rubin.  Not only with you have a great time, but your kids may find the inspiration to punch through the barriers they will inevitably encounter in life.

I neglected to explain here what dark matter is.  Doing so would be far beyond the scope of a theatrical review (and far beyond my understanding).  However, for the curious, here’s a link to a fairly coherent explanation.


This show is suitable for all ages, and highly recommended for children. 

The Fiske Planetarium is on the Boulder Campus of the University of Colorado.  The parking lots have restrictions.  You can get parking information here.  

For weekend and evening performances, parking is free in nearby Lot 308 (unless there is a special event).  Parking in a restricted area on campus is not recommended.  For those unfamiliar with the campus and the Fiske Planetarium, there are maps here.  Full explanation of campus parking options can be found here.  

As information, it appears that Vera Rubin is not the only person who has been overlooked regarding dark matter theory.  As is often the case in astronomy, she collaborated with another person:  Kent Ford.  Neither Rubin nor Ford are household names.  It might be advisable for Vera Rubin:  Bringing the Dark to Light to at least mention Ford and his collaboration when crediting the Rubin for her work on dark matter.


This show closes on February 6, 2016.

Pre/Post Show Dining Recommendation:

We had a quick dinner and a beer at Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub, just off the Pearl Street Mall at 1922 13th Street in Boulder.  Parking can be difficult, but because we were there on a Saturday we were able to get a free spot in one of the city parking structures.  

The food is definitely Irish, and tasty.  Beers include Guiness, Smithwick’s, and Harp.  


BETC Producing Ensemble Director/Stage Director:  Stephen Weitz

Sound Design/Composer/BETC Production Manager:  Andrew Metzroth

Costume Design:  Brenda King

BETC Director of Programs and Grants, Star Power Series Coordinator:  Heather Beasley


Fiske Education Programs Manager:  Matt Benjamin

Fiske Director:  Doug Duncan

Fisk Video Producer/Educational Programs:  Thor Metzinger


Sir Isaac Newton:  Chip Persons

Vera’s Father:  Brian Gregory Shea

Vera Rubin:  MacKenzie Sherburne

Dr. “NO”:  Justin Walvoord

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