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‘QED’ a tour de force for Rob Riley

Rob Riley stars as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman “QED” CollaboractiTheatre.

Rob Riley stars as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman in “QED” at Collaboraction Theatre.

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When: Through Dec. 9

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

Tickets: $25

Info: (866) 212-4077;

Updated: November 27, 2012 10:41AM

Spending a solid 90 minutes perched on the edge of the brain of a genius might not be a restful exercise. But if the brain in question happens to belong to that highly original, playfully unorthodox, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, it is a sure bet that you not only will have a wildly thought-provoking experience, but an enormously entertaining, thoroughly exhilarating one.

To be sure, your metabolism will almost immediately soar to “high,” and your imagination will be set into a Frisbie-like spin mode not all that different from the one that inspired the scientist to devise a crucial theory.

And just where can you find this wholly charismatic man who was just 25 when he was recruited to participate in the Manhattan Project and the building of the atomic bomb, and who, shortly before his death, was an outspoken member of the team that investigated the 1986 Shuttle Challenger disaster? As it happens, he is bursting with life (even if plagued by cancer) in Peter Parnell’s play, “QED,” a mostly one man show featuring a tour de force performance by Rob Riley. (The small but crucial role of a fetching young grad student is played with sparkle and spirit by Grace Wagner.)

Thanks to both Parnell’s supremely well-formulated script, and Riley’s tremendously smart, easeful and engaging performance, the crazy trajectory of Feynman’s mind, and the amazing range of his enthusiasms, is captured from the moment the lights come up and the scientist enters his very lived-in office at Cal Tech while pounding on a bongo drum.

Though Feynman clearly is most focused on playing “the chief of Bali Hai” in a local production of “South Pacific” (he is a natural ham, with a great sense of humor), he is reminded he must give a lecture in a few days on the subject of “What We Know,” and has yet to begin work on it. And then there are those urgent phone calls from his doctors who are proposing yet another major surgery in which he will be “the experiment.”

Of course Feynman could write the talk in his sleep, for this is a man who has spent his entire life in “the constant search to describe nature,” along the way “tricking nature into revealing her secrets.” Nature — who he imagines as female — is not very eager to relinquish those secrets.

His decision about how to proceed medically is more difficult, though he tries to confront it rationally. Yet “QED” is the portrait of a man so zestfully alive that his illness seems like background noise.

Feynman was, to put it mildly, hyper-associative, and one of the delights of this show is to see how his attention careens from the culture of the Tuva (a people of southern Siberia), to a visiting Russian delegation, to the color of bird feathers, to the art of safe-cracking, to his deep regrets about the bomb, to his penchant for drawing, to his abiding love for Arline Greenbaum (his first wife, who died young of tuberculosis), to his love of women in general. He was a man who saw the connection between all things in the universe, and remained awestruck by it all.

Ideally directed by Maureen Payne-Hahner, “QED” is being performed “in-the-round” in the intimate Collaboraction space where designer Courtney O’Neill’s brilliant set of chalkboard walls is covered with formulas, diagrams and this crucial question: “Why is there something and then nothing?”

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