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Museum plays bring the `boring stuff' in glass boxes to life

The barber-surgeon, clad in the knee britches and puffy-armed shirts of Tudor England, squints at his young listeners, lowers his voice, and confides that the ``difference in station'' aboard the good ship Mary Rose ``stinks.'' ``Them officers,'' he growls, ``dining on their fine pewter dishes,'' while he and the other crew members eat salt fish in wooden bowls.

The children sitting and sprawling on the floor in front of the barber-surgeon's tiny stage giggle at his grimace. Adults fanned out behind them join in with a chortle or two. In back of the crowd of 50 or 60 museum-goers, young and old, rest those same dishes and bowls, along with dozens of other artifacts arranged in lighted glass cases. They're part of the bounty from the Mary Rose, the ``flower'' of Henry VIII's fleet, which was sent to the ocean's bottom off Portsmouth, England, in 1545 and was raised by a team of British archaeologists in 1982.

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The voluble barber-surgeon, played by Boston actor Michael Preston, beams, scowls, whispers, and bellows his monologue about everyday life aboard a Tudor warship -- and about his shoreside concerns. The good man's wife, you see, is expecting a child at any moment, even as he and his comrades prepare to attack the French.

``The Barber Surgeon Had a Wife,'' a 20-minute play running at the Boston's Museum of Science through early March, concurrent with its Mary Rose exhibit, is part of a growing movement among museums of science and technology to bring their offerings to life by means of drama. In the handful of places where the idea is taking hold, it has helped transform the family trip to the museum, undermining youngsters' complaints about ``boring stuff'' in glass boxes.

``You see objects on display, and you think of them as objects, but they're really part of everyday life in another culture,'' observes Sandra Quinn, director of public programs at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. The point of short plays like the ``Barber Surgeon,'' she explains, is to bring out the human side of fields like anthropology and archaeology.

Ms. Quinn's museum pioneered the concept of ``museum theater.'' She and her colleagues have been working along these lines since 1971; they frequently have from 12 to 15 dramatic productions running simultaneously. Boston's Science Museum consulted with Quinn in staging its own theatrical adjunct to the Mary Rose display, a traveling exhibit on loan from England.

At present, Minnesota's museum is the only institution in the country with a full-time acting company, though museums in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Boston and in Columbus, Ohio, and Charlotte, N.C., are actively interested in this new means of ``interpreting'' exhibits for visitors.

The shows staged at the Minnesota museum -- ranging from a town-meeting drama on the effects of nuclear winter to a dinosaur play in which children take the roles of the ancient beasts -- have proven to be effective, and very popular, educational tools, says Quinn. She recalls walking along the museum's skyway one day as a young teen-ager looked down, saw the museum's Northwest Indian display, and exclaimed, ``Oh that's the totem, with different clans, like we saw in that play the other day.'' The youngster was ``making connections,'' something every museum staffer yearns to see.

Crafting a play that really fits a museum's needs isn't easy, according to Tessa Bridal, director of the theater program at the Minnesota museum. ``The play has to be dramatically as sound as any play in a theater,'' she notes, ``but it has to be scientifically accurate as well.'' This means playwrights must be meticulous scholars, since their work will be carefully scrutinized by curators.

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One writer who fits that bill, says Ms. Bridal, is Marilyn Seven, a fellow at the Playwright's Center in Minneapolis and author of ``The Barber Surgeon Had a Wife,'' as well as five plays that have run in the Minnesota science museum. Part of the trick in museum theater, Ms. Seven explains, is finding an element of humanity in a set of artifacts, something that can spark a half-hour or so of drama. With the Mary Rose exhibit, it was the barber-surgeon's remarkably preserved chest of tools -- right down to a small unguent jar with his fingerprint still in the ointment. From that poignant remnant of history, a man's life, illustrative of his times, took shape.

``I play historian for two months, then put on my drama cap and see how it works,'' says Ms. Seven.

Orrin Shane, a curator in Minnesota, comments that the plays make an exhibit come alive two ways. First, through the inherent liveliness of dramatic presentation. Second, all the plays are designed to bring the audience into the action, through exchanges between the actors and their onlookers, questions and answers at the end, or even direct involvement of children in the drama.

Back in Boston, Michael Preston's vigorous 20 minutes as the Mary Rose's barber surgeon has ended and he's fielding a few of those questions. ``Was the wooden mallet really used as an anesthetic in dentistry?'' ``How fast did the ship sink?''

Mr. Preston's hope is that ``Barber Surgeon Had a Wife'' will travel to Charleston, S.C., along with the Mary Rose exhibit in March. That eventuality, a touring show, would be another innovation for museum theater.

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