WEST LOOP — You’re probably familiar with the term “mesmerized,” but did you know that the word stems from the name of an 18th-century scientist? Franz Anton Mesmer, considered the father of modern hypnosis, is the inspiration for the play “Mesmerized: A Ben Franklin Science and History Mystery” at the Chicago Children’s Theatre.
Mesmer was a German scientist who theorized he could create an energy transfer between animate and inanimate objects, which he called “animal magnetism.” In 1784, Benjamin Franklin joined a commission to scientifically debunk Mesmer’s work on behalf of King Louis XVI and French physicians skeptical and jealous of Mesmer’s hype.
This slice of history is the inspiration behind Mara Rockliff’s 2015 children’s book, “Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France,” the basis for the show, here spun with a stowaway niece character to accompany Franklin on his international scientific mission.
Brooklyn-based playwright Suzanne Maynard Miller began working on the adaptation in 2019 after the theater’s artistic director, Jacqueline Russell, brought the book to her attention. They had previously collaborated on the theater’s production of “Frederick,” inspired by the Leo Lionni picture book about a mouse.
As Miller and Russell had Philadelphia connections, they were excited about launching a story based on Benjamin Franklin. But as the project stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic, Miller began to approach the source material with a new perspective, she said.
“My mindset changed so much because of the way people were talking about science and using their own ideas of what science may or may not be with no evidence,” Miller said.
At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement led Miller to contemplate the voices often excluded from historical narratives, which inspired her creation of the character Sarah, Franklin’s niece, who can accompany him as his apprentice — but only in the guise of a boy, she said.
Despite this heady-seeming material, the play is a romp, with laughs for children and grownups coming from callback audio gags, knowing winks to the audience and plenty of puns.
“It’s all about the Benjamins,” Mesmer laments at one point about his American foil.
In the play, Mesmer is a showbiz hypnotist crossed with a faith healer, with Tony Carter’s interpretation of the scientist as a mendacious, sneering character. Kasey Foster, as the king’s assistant, Charles — as well as other backup characters at the French court — is another standout, stealing scenes with her expressive face and ability to inhabit the body of a foppish man.
The key to making an informative plot funny, Miller said, was to let the actors chime in during the workshop process.
“It’s really coming from the characters,” Miller said.
Mesmer dropping his German accent to yell “C’mon man!” to Benjamin Franklin for blowing the lid off a scam was an especially big hit with young audience members at a recent Sunday morning performance.
The play comes packaged in beautiful quick-change beribboned costumes, hula-hoop-like bustles, major wig action and creative stagecraft work for the small stage. There is a lot of fancy footwork, from the king sporting fuzzy crowned flamingo slippers to Mesmer roller-skating around the stage with his magic wand and Franklin’s much-bemoaned gout.
Learning about the scientific method is a valuable lesson for any child. Especially poignant in 2023 is the notion of being mindful of fads and scammers who touch on science without being based on it — a snare entrapping many adults to this day.
“I didn’t want it to become a serious, heavy play,” Miller said. “That became a very tricky balancing act. We want to celebrate the imagination and talk about how the placebo effect is a real thing. We need to acknowledge science is real and now more than ever look at facts and evidence-based research.”
“Mesmerized: A Ben Franklin Science and History Mystery” runs through Oct. 22, 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Chicago Children’s Theatre, 100 S. Racine Ave. in the West Loop. Run time is 60 minutes. “Mesmerized” is recommended for ages 7 and older. Tickets are $30-$40. Visit chicagochildrenstheatre.org for more information.
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