A draw to animals and a quarantine leads to a show

Isabella Rossellini releases new one-woman show

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Sometimes, not-so-great circumstances create better-than-thought-of opportunities.

In Isabella Rossellini’s case, her new one-woman show, “Darwin’s Smile,” was spurred by the COVID lockdown. In 2020, the Onassis Foundation contacted the actress about making a short film in her home. A set in her living room was created and neighbor Paul Magid was tapped to appear as Darwin, the famous evolutionary biologist, while Rossellini reads his book, “The Descent of Man.” She falls asleep, and then proceeds to have a funny, interesting dialogue with Darwin’s ghost in a dream.  The video, “Darwin What? What?” was distributed to venues including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Rossellini refined the idea into a 75-minute show and opened it April in Nice, France, at the Church of St. Francis Theater. She was there for two months. “We got very good reviews in France,” she said.

Now she’s bringing it to The Gateway in two benefit performances, Aug. 13 and 14 at 7 p.m. After that, the show travels to San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall, then Chicago and then Europe.

For those not familiar with Charles Darwin, his groundbreaking “On the Origin of the Species,” published in 1859, introduced the theory that populations evolve over time through a process of natural selection. It was mind-bending, bold, and unpopular for its era. Subsequently, in “The Descent of Man,” Darwin makes his case for sexual selection.

But “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” published in 1872, was one of the first scientific texts to utilize photographic illustrations, and Darwin’s insights were that facial expressions of emotion are universal and that emotions aren’t unique to humans, but found in many other species. He used photography to support his argument.

“My play is about expression and emotion and the core of emotions,” Rossellini said during a break at The Gateway. “Sometimes when I read a book, I make it into different sauces.” After the Onassis Foundation video, “I was asked to do a funny lecture; I wrote ‘Darwin’s Smile,’ then it was produced.”

“It was the beginning of photography with his book, ‘Expression of Emotions,’” Rossellini said. When “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” was first published, cameras weren’t the sophisticated tools we now have and were slow to capture a subject’s expression, which tended to wear down after several seconds, she said. But Darwin painstakingly found a way. 

“We show teeth for a smile and also anger, so was that expression universal?” she asked. “Maybe our ancestors showed teeth before we were designated human beings,” she said. “Another thing: Darwin said all men had the same origin. He based it on expression, so it means we have a common origin.”

Rossellini keeps the show lively via imaginative costumes, like the glorious peacock one. She purchased a shed for her props and works with props, costume, and production designer, Andy Byers, as well as art and set director and production designer, Rick Gilbert. “They know how to make things, including papier-mâché,” she said. Rossellini skillfully integrates funny asides and interesting scientific revelations.

Although her work is wide-ranging (she’s currently cast as Julia Child’s co-author, Simone Beck, in HBO’s “Julia”), Rossellini has an affinity for animals, as witnessed on her Mama Farm, now run by her executive director, daughter Elettra Wiedemann. “I always had animals, dogs, cats,” Rossellini said of her upbringing in Rome on the family farm.

“My biggest surprise were the chickens.”

Rossellini established her farm in Brookhaven hamlet 2013 and started out with heritage chickens, to be raised for their eggs; she got them as chicks. And she named them.

“They have personalities,” she said. “Red was an explorer, for example. She’s a kind of Houdini, and we have a netting surrounding their structures to protect them against hawks. And when they see me, they run to me. The same thing with sheep. They come out and let me pet them; with strangers, they’re cautious. Chickens don’t like to be touched much, but sheep and goats do. I also think they like affection. Sometimes, I read the papers at the farm and they’re all around me.”

For tickets, click on www.thegateway.org.

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