Prop Theatre

Even drugs can get middle-aged. This spring LSD turned 50: fittingly, the great hallucinogen was refined in the middle of a war. Developed by Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann from the ergot fungus that grows on rye, the mind-expanding substance works by shutting down the serotonin in the brain, which normally filters sensations. The result is an openness to stimulation that can range from euphoric to scary: acid does more than yield patterns in carpets or faces in water–it can induce what Freud called the “oceanic feeling” and what we still imagine as “cosmic consciousness.”

As I distantly recall from my own experiments, a good trip could confer instant meaning on the universe: clouds seemed to move toward a grand consummation, and on a great trip so did the traffic. You could feel the spring growing right through the roots. In this exhilarating but potentially disastrous state the boundaries between you and a threatening world broke down. While it happened, you were too taken by the experience to analyze it; when it was over, it was next to impossible to make words capture the feelings.

Like most things birthed by science, LSD had a nightmare obverse: in cold-war experiments, the CIA gave LSD to the unknowing clients of San Francisco prostitutes and discovered that in large doses it can trigger paranoia, insanity, and suicide–an out-of-body experience can drive you out of your mind. Banned since 1966, LSD has even induced hysteria in people who have not taken it, though the threat of communists pouring it into our water supply faded long ago.

Andy Soma has put much effort into It Comes in Waves: LSD at 50, a sort of tribute and illustrated lecture. The show begins as you enter the Prop’s lobby, whose walls are covered with articles, magazine covers, and 60s psychedelic art inspired by LSD.

Loosely organized, this 90-minute multimedia program covers only the first “wave,” from 1943 to 1963 (a second part is in the offing). Soma employs an overhead projector, a film projector (which wasn’t working opening night), taped voice-overs, dubbing, and recorded songs, as well as Patricia O’Donnell in a host of roles. After we hear a tape of a radio announcer indignantly correcting a traffic reporter who keeps calling Lake Shore Drive “LSD,” Soma enters to announce that he assumes no responsibility for any “future flashbacks,” passes out a syllabus for an imaginary course called LSD 101, and enacts a chilling, if overlong, case history from 1953 in which a cop unwittingly became a CIA guinea pig: he was given acid by a hooker and jumped out a window.

Soma invites an audience member to read Allen Ginsberg’s lengthy, diffuse poem “Lysergic Acid”; meanwhile the volunteer is gently interrogated, examined with a magnifying glass, illuminated with a strobe light, and asked to recite the second half of the poem beneath a grate. We learn how Harvard drug guru Timothy Leary told a prison warden that acid could reduce recidivism by 50 percent, supposedly by knocking criminals out of their “cops-and-robbers games,” but the warden couldn’t bear the prospect of so many emptied jails.

Soma, in a mask, and O’Donnell, her back to the audience, re-create conversations in 1962 and 1963 between Leary and Mary Pinchot-Meyer, a woman who reputedly slept with JFK and was murdered in 1964–because, it’s implied, her attempts to turn on the Washington elite so they could pursue peace instead of power taught her too much about Kennedy’s LSD dependence.

Personalizing the subject, Soma shares with us a painting he did in high school in 1975, after his first acid trip. He solicits audience testimonials on good trips (no one came forward) and reads the drug experiences audience members had earlier written on file cards. (As Soma remarked, they seemed very dreamlike.) Soma and O’Donnell use cutouts on the overhead projector to act out a dull debate on whether acid is a drug that expands the mind or a psychotomimetic drug that simulates, sometimes accurately, a mental breakdown.

We listen to drug taker William Burroughs offer a cryptic warning against the reactionary potential of altering the mind. O’Donnell reads Susan Leary’s uneventful recollections of growing up among jolly, drug-ridden Harvard intellectuals in the early 60s. Finally, Soma and O’Donnell depict Aldous Huxley’s death on November 22, 1963, when, after a prolonged illness, his wife Laura injected him with acid and repeatedly told him to look for the light.

An entry in the Rhinoceros Theatre Festival (which continues at Prop Theatre), It Comes in Waves was postponed a week because of technical problems; on opening night it started an hour late (a blown fuse). At the moment it’s a rocky effort, marred when I saw it by breakdowns in the sound system, lighting miscues, slow transitions, and wastefully long and inappropriate song selections: “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and “Watching All the Girls Go By” have at best a tenuous connection to the subject. Also odd for a show on this subject is the rather clinical set design: it contains very little color.

At this stage It Comes in Waves tries to cover too much: Soma has to decide what’s crucial to his LSD word-picture and speed it up. Tellingly the show’s most vibrant moments turn out to be the audience’s baroque memories of such things as seeing green demons in closets.

Certainly you don’t have to be on drugs or even have taken them to savor this piece. But the selections should mushroom into more than just interesting comments on an uncontrollable substance.