Combined Efforts explores the cosmos in holiday show ‘Zwicky’s Air’

Combined Efforts Presents: Zwicky’s Air

Johnson County Fairgrounds — opens Friday, Dec. 14

IRAS Ring G159.6-18.5, the Wreath Nebula. — NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Combined Efforts Theatre, the Iowa City company that welcomes performers with and without disabilities, opens its winter holiday show on Friday, Dec. 14. Zwicky’s Air runs one weekend only, at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $10 general admission, or $5 for special guests: children under 10, Individuals with disabilities, and employees of organizations that serve individuals with disabilities. “If Scrooge was an astrophysicist,” the description on their website reads, “this would be his story.”

Zwicky’s Air was commissioned by Combined Efforts from Ken Gayley, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Iowa. He’s written for the theater before, collaborating on one of the company’s previous summer shows, Star Con, and contributing short pieces to their annual variety show, LEAP!.

“[Those pieces] are written by a committee called the Combined Efforts writing group run by Jessica Wilson, and I participate with that group,” Gayley told Little Village in an email. “So when Janet and Jessica asked me to write this play, I knew I was going to get a lot of help, and I sure did.”

The story centers on an astronomer attempting to create an alternative model of the universe, its history and future. The protagonist’s hero is Fritz Zwicky, a Swiss astronomer active in the mid-20th century who, Gayley said, “was famous for coming up with crazy-sounding ideas that often turned out to be right.” He shares with his idol a curmudgeonly personality that makes personal and professional connections challenging, even among his allies.

If the far reaches of space seem like an unlikely entry point for a holiday production, you just need to look more closely at the science.

“I feel there are a lot of aesthetic connections between astronomy and the human condition, which I stress in my classes and which largely motivated the play,” Gayley said. “Astronomy is about our place in the grander scheme, and the lessons we can take about how the universe works in ways that don’t directly involve us, which can serve to balance against our tendency to be wrapped up in our own shortsighted concerns.”

“It is a holiday show in that it asks the biggest question about our place and eventual future in the universe: the cosmos,” Combined Efforts founder Janet Schlapkohl wrote of the commission in an email. “Will we end up isolated and cold and alone (as is currently the theory behind the Big Bang) or is another theory possible? In that theory, we actually see time return in a wave, which might offer an opportunity to correct mistakes and do things right, or better. That is a great message for the season!”

Science can be a challenging topic for non-scientists, something that the arts have the perfect opportunity to help address.

“Science is not all things to all people, and certainly does not replace our need to fulfill ourselves emotionally and morally, but it is an important piece in the progress of human civilization — all because contact with evidence-based objective truth is a powerful connection to maintain and encourage,” Gayley said. “Theater can play a role in that, especially in astronomy, which is one of the most deeply aesthetically based sciences. Indeed, in the play there is a line ‘Science and literature are diametrically opposed,’ and the fact that I don’t believe that is true is a primary motivator for the action in the play.”

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