Lisa Gauthier Mitchison
John C. Lilly: 1960s and ’70s physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, “psychonaut,” philosopher, writer, and inventor, as well as the subject of Phoenix Theatre Playwright-in-Residence Tom Horan’s loose biography, Acid Dolphin Experiment.
First, a condensed background on Lilly because there is little setup within the often-psychedelic and hard-to-follow show. Lilly had a near-death experience as a child, which fueled his desire to explore and understand humanity’s view of consciousness. He deviated from the family’s lucrative banking career and turned toward scientific pursuits—including nontraditional experimentation in which he was often the test subject. He invented the isolation tank to achieve sensory deprivation and used LSD to explore alternate forms of consciousness. He believed that dolphins were capable of imitating human language, and he was a proponent of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project.
As his grasp on reality relaxed, his mind crafted cosmic watchdogs, the benevolent Earth Coincidence Control Office (ECCO), and the malevolent Solid State Intelligence (SSI), a sort of artificial intelligence destined to go to war with humanity.
On the Phoenix’s second stage, Joshua Coomer is generally awash in blue light, representing Lilly floating in his isolation tank. (Effect achieved by lighting designer Laura Glover.) This is where his communications with ECCO happen. Lauren Briggeman, Jolene Mentink Moffatt, and Chelsey Stauffer pop in and out of portholes as members of ECCO. They also take on many other roles that pertain to Lilly’s life, as does Michael Hosp. Under the direction of Bill Simmons, the cast is passionate, focused, and lively, with several funny moments interspersed throughout. Costuming and set coloring (Emily McGee and Jeffrey Martin) are bright reflections of the time. But as I noted before, the play feels disjointed (though a case could be made that its structure is a representation of Lilly’s LSD trips). This makes the story arc hard to follow, however, hence the summary of Lilly above. With adequate information going in, the show could be a look inside an unusual piece of American scientific history presented by a capable cast. Without the Cliffs Notes, it’s as discombobulating as the LSD.