"The Unholy Secrets of the Theremin" manages to take the story of a man who led a life far stranger than fiction, and make it even stranger. The two man work, running as part of the New York Fringe Festival, takes a tale of sex, spies, and sci-fi soundtracks, and turns it into a frequently witty performance piece marred by over-long musical interludes.
For the uninitiated (which will likely include all but the geekiest of music and sci-fi fanatics), the theremin is a musical instrument, invented in 1919, which can be played without being touched. The most famous pieces which feature the electronic oddity are the themes from the film "The Day The Earth Stood Still" and the original Star Trek TV series, both of which are amusingly referenced in "Unholy Secrets". The most fascinating thing about the instrument, however, is its' inventor, Lev Sergeyevich Termin, a.k.a. Leon Theremin. He became a superstar in some circles as a composer, performer, and inventor, but disappeared suddenly at the height of his fame, then re-surfaced three decades later. Those lost years were spent in forced servitude to the Soviets, where he invented spy technology while imprisoned in Siberia/>.
Kip Rosser and Jef Anderson are the authors and performers of "Unholy Secrets of the Theremin", play many roles, including trading off their own personas as "Kip Rosser" and "Jef Anderson". Mr. Rosser, whose white East Indian garb and benignly insane smile brought to mind Peter Sellers in "The Party", is a virtuoso of the evenings' titular instrument. Mr. Anderson, wild-eyed and clad in a black Napoleonic uniform, provides piano accompaniment. The show opens with a mock ritual to summon the spirit of Termin from the ether, hilariously solemn choreography culminating in the duo smashing a beer bottles over one anothers' heads. This elegantly sets the mood. The show consists of musical selections alternating with scenes of dialogue that bring to mind the best parts of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead", mixing philosophical and scientific ponderings with intelligently absurd banter. The pair have a fantastic chemistry, and make even the inclusion of a Crosby and Hope style song and dance number(with lyrics by Theodore "Dr. Seuss" Geisel) seem to fit.
An hour of these bits, in addition to the moving and well written interpretation of Theremins' imprisonment, would have been great theatre. However, an unnecessary intermission and too many long musical pieces nearly sink the show. To be sure, both are exceptional musicians, and watching their enthusiastic playing is often entertaining, but the momentum of the show is destroyed by the long pieces; at least half of the music should have been cut. Although the theremin is supposed to be the star of the show, it is not nearly as diverting as our non-electronic hosts.
Photo: Jef Anderson and Kip Rosser