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In ‘Mesmerized’, Ben Franklin solves a science mystery

As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So, if you’re the king of France in the 1700s and you’ve got a doctor waving a magic wand and claiming to have a cure for whatever ails you, seemingly out of nowhere, who better to take care of than the famous scientist? and inventor Ben Franklin?

This mystical place between science and magic, the supernatural and the real, is at the heart of Chicago Children’s Theatre’s world premiere production of “Mesmerized: A Ben Franklin Science & History Mystery.” The story was adapted for the stage by Suzanne Maynard Miller from Mara Rockliff’s “Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France”, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. The show combines history, science, and a bit of the mystical to provide an entertaining lesson in the scientific method and trusting facts, with a few other lessons mixed in along the way.

So King Louis is losing money. A new doctor in town named Mesmer has been stealing patients from the king’s doctors as the sick and injured choose to skip the normally prescribed leech treatments for Mesmer’s staff and magical medicines. Franklin enters, along with his nephew and the scientific method, to help the king determine whether this fascinating Mesmer is real or a complete fraud. A bonus for Franklin, if he could help the king, there might be more money to help the American Revolution.

There is wonderful absurdity in the production directed by Tommy Rapley. Franklin arrived in France as a true celebrity, his face on T-shirts and everything. Mesmer’s magical stunts include bathing the stage and audience in neon and black lights, with Mesmer gliding across the stage on roller skates at one point. Mesmer’s energy, exuded here by Tony Carter’s hypnotic performance, is matched by his stumbling assistant Charles (Kasey Foster), who always seems to be a page behind.

Mesmer leads the show’s main interactive moments, which are the most entertaining part of any children’s show. He waves his wand and encourages the audience to feel the heat, to feel the cold, to feel their arms flying through the air. He mimics the instructions he gives his patients just before they are magically healed. The audience reaction, at least from where I was sitting, was a bit mixed, as while the majority of people were really into these fun, over-the-top games, a few teenagers were a little distracted by how the black light made their socks shine.

That’s not something to take away from the lighting design, under the direction of lighting supervisor Hannah Wien. This black light, matched with Collette Pollard’s scenic design, transformed the marble arches of a King’s palace or Franklin’s study into glowing cracks when Mesmer appeared on the scene; It symbolically illuminated the cracks in which Mesmer was forming the foundation of the world around him.

This show has a few downsides. It feels as if Carter’s Mesmer is teaching the audience how to perform his little play – and we’re all dying to do so – but when things get heated and Mesmer turns to the audience to find a volunteer to help with the act, the children in the audience are ignored in favor of Marie Antoinette. It’s hard to blame Mesmer for choosing Marie Antoinette from the stunning China Brickey (and impossible to blame Miller for not including an unscripted moment in the script). Imagine, though, that a great magician asks for an audience volunteer and then chooses someone from backstage.

Although the series is mostly about the journey and story of Ben Franklin (played by Shawn Pfautsch like a delightful science teacher who keeps you interested in the subject), Mesmer still provides some of the most compelling moments in the series. Many of the moments involving Franklin and his niece Sarah (Rika Nishikawa) feel like treading water as they await the clash between Mesmer’s magic and Franklin and Sarah’s meticulous examination using the scientific method. For the most part, the individual performances of the entire cast are enough to keep you entertained.

As we approach the end of the show, towards the end of the hour-long performance, you begin to feel how much everything depends on the excitement around Mesmer. Throughout the final scenes of the show you can feel that the show is trying to speak to modern times. The show’s themes of sexism fit somewhat less well with Sarah’s interest in science, especially at a time when society would rather focus on her learning to curtsy. In particular, a late and ponderous speech about the Founding Fathers not including women in the Declaration of Independence feels cumbersome.

But the result of this program is that, in addition to being an enjoyable way to spend an hour talking about science, it also reminds viewers, especially children, to be critical and think scientifically. It reminds us all to trust the facts and not rely on faith, broadcasting a cautionary tale about how people are willing to believe (or not believe) what they want to believe (or not believe). In other words, be careful so you don’t find yourself mesmerized.

Theater Cycle

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Jerald Pierce is a freelance writer.

Review: “Spellbound: A Ben Franklin Science and History Mystery” (3 stars)

When: until October 15

Where: Chicago Children’s Theatre, 100 S. Racine

Running time: 60 minutes

Tickets: $30-$40 at 312-374-8835 and chicagochildrenstheatre.org

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