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ACT II: A closer look at area stages — ‘QED’

Rob Riley plays physicist Richard Feynman “QED.”

Rob Riley plays physicist Richard Feynman in “QED.”

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When: Oct. 24-Dec. 9

Where: Collaboraction Theatre, 1579 N. Milwaukee (third floor)

Tickets: $25

Info: (866) 212-4077;

Updated: November 22, 2012 6:12AM

You don’t need to be a physicist to understand the pure magnetism of Richard Feynman (1918-1988), the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who has been described as “one of the greatest minds since Einstein.”

In fact, you can easily go to YouTube and listen to the man himself speak about everything from the beauty and complexity of a flower, to the nature of the scientific method, doing so in the most wholly accessible and beguiling way.

Alternatively — and Feynman was a great advocate for looking at things from every possible angle — beginning Oct. 24 you can head to Collaboraction Theater to see the theatre4humanity production of Peter Parnell’s play, “QED,” starring Rob Riley, the veteran Chicago actor.

The play, initially created as part of a collaboration between Parnell and actor Alan Alda (who performed it during the 2001-2002 season at both Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum and New York’s Lincoln Center Theater), homes in on a single day in Feynman’s life, just two years before his death from cancer. Along the way it touches on everything from his participation in the development of the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, to his role in investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986, to his flair for safe-cracking and bongo-playing.

The play’s title has a dual meaning. Q.E.D. is from the Latin phrase “quod erat demonstrandum” or “that which had to be demonstrated,” which traditionally signals the completion of a mathematical or philosophical proof. Here, it also stands for “quantum electrodynamics,” an area of physics that describes how light and matter interact, and of which Feynman was a founding father.

Riley’s involvement with the play began in 2010 when he performed it at Northwestern University as part of ETOPiA [cq], a project staged in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences that uses the performance arts to inspire a dialogue about the role of science and technology in society.

“I never studied physics,” Riley confessed. “But I knew Feynman was a brilliant scientist who taught at Cal Tech, and a fascinating Renaissance man who was an artist, and a musician — he played bongos and African drums on the Sunset Strip — and who spent time in hot tubs at Esalen [the “alternative community” in Big Sur, Ca.], and with gamblers in Las Vegas. And the play is as much about human emotions as it is about physics.”

“I’ve come to believe that his genius had something to do with his work as an artist and musician, which opened doors for him that were not there for others,” said Riley. “For example, he became famous for his Feynman’s Diagrams [“pictorial representations of the mathematical expressions governing the behavior of subatomic particles”], so that with a few lines, squiggles and arrows he could express things that otherwise might take a whole blackboard full of numbers and symbols.”

Riley said it was his own background in improvisation, and work at The Second City, that has connected him to Feynman most closely.

“You can see that improv spirit at work in his famous lectures,” said the actor. “He had few notes, and he played off the audience with a genuine spontaneity of thinking that could be both brilliant and funny. He was really a compulsive performer, and a flirt — something you see when one of his female students (the fictional character of Miriam Field, played here by Grace Wagner) enters the room.”

In preparing for the role, Riley talked with Dr. Laurie Brown, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at Northwestern University. Feynman was Brown’s thesis advisor when he was a post-doctoral student at Cornell University in 1951.

“Dick [Feynman] was in a very depressed state when he came to Cornell because his great early love and first wife, Arline Greenbaum, had died,” said Brown, now 89. “But to the world he appeared very upbeat and active. His advice to us was always ‘When you begin to work on a problem start at the beginning and do it your own way, rather than by the book, and try to solve the problem several different ways, because that will enable you to see new aspects of the problem’.”

“Dick was known as ‘The Great Explainer,’ and he definitely was that. He also was very charming. And original. One of his great innovations was ‘the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics’ which, to simplify greatly, means that you look at all the possible ways for how something gets from the beginning to the end, rather than going moment by moment. This applies to all elementary particles.”

“While I was his student, Dick spent a great deal of time in Brazil, so there was a lot of correspondence. He joined a samba band there and marched in Carnival. He had a great feel for complicated rhythms — he was always drumming his fingers — six beats with one hand, seven with the other. And at Cal Tech he was quite the showman, often making cameo appearances in the local theater — one time playing a janitor emptying trash cans.”

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