Fire of Life examines social costs of overproduction


By Susie Davidson

Advocate Correspondent


Overconsumption and under-reduction, in many ways, characterize our modern throwaway culture. In food packaging, vehicle size, litter piles and even the physical shape of its inhabitants, our society often presents a picture of sheer, indulgent extravagance.


How far it can go and what price might ultimately be paid are concepts explored in a new play, “The Fire of Life,” to be performed this weekend at the Cambridge Family YMCA Theater, 820 Mass. Ave. In a no-holds-barred portrayal of the spiritual, political and economic effects of a collectively frivolous  lifestyle, the production also invokes audience members to reflect on their own consumeristic behavior.


The rock opera, written and produced by Eben Portnoy and Ben Spiegelman (who also directs the show), is the premiere work of the Department of Energy Theatre Company. Crew members also include Production Manager Chris Butterfield, Music Director Jonathan Vincent, Choreographer Stephanie Chiesi, Stage Manager Kimmerie H.O. Jones, Technical Director Ian Ross, Set Designer Caleb Wertenbaker and Lighting Designer Seth Bernstein. Actors include Dana Frantz, Ian McKinnen, A.M. Slusser, Trudi Goodman, C. Moon Mullins, Shiba Nemat-Nasser, Lo Galluccio, Sumit Bhansali, Ken Gottleib and Sally Tetzlaff.


A San Francisco native, Spiegelman, a Roxbury resident, was a founding member of the local arts organization, gallery and performance space Berwick Research Institute. His grandfather, Sol Spiegelman, a New York-based geneticist, was a founding member of the Human Genome Project of the 1970s. He discovered the smallest entity known to replicate itself, an organism later dubbed “Spiegelman’s monster.” Spiegelman, 26, holds a 2001 bachelor’s of fine arts degree from the Museum of Fine Arts School. In 2000, he produced the “Portable Obelisk Project,” a series of public arts performances where a 22-foot floating obelisk was transported on both land and city around the city. He also produced and directed several films; one, “From the Files of Dr. H.: The Case of the Counting Horse,” “told the story of an imprisoned woman imprisoned in a mental institution for ambiguous purposes,” he explained. The main theme was the concept of what is deemed “normal” and how someone is judged that way.


Spiegelman manages the woodshop at Harvard University’s Visual Environmental Studies Department and serves as Technical Director at the Cambridge Family YMCA.


Portnoy, who grew up in Wellfleet and lives in Jamaica Plain, holds a 2001 joint bachelor’s of fine arts degree from the Museum School and Tufts University. His great-grandparents immigrated from Poland; his grandfather, Waltham Portnoy, studied podiatry but, lacking the funds to finish his education, instead began a shoe business in New Bedford which enabled him to send his own children to college. Portnoy’s father, John, is a research ecologist for the Cape Cod National Seashore.


Portnoy, 24, who teaches in local after-school programs and does contract art installations at various museums and galleries, has performed with various bands and performance groups in the Boston area.


“Part satiric parable, part metaphysical treatise on thermodynamics, ‘Fire’ describes a not-so-distant future in which an experimental treatment allows humans to absorb energy from sunlight,” explained Jones, who also acts as publicist. The play, which is both frightening and hilarious, takes its influences from pop culture and apocalyptic prophecy, combines elements of science fiction, Greek tragedy, and rock and roll.


In their productions, Portnoy and Spiegelman strive for an educational as well as entertaining effect which both engages and empowers their audiences. “Using parody and metaphorical narrative, we call into question dominant cultural paradigms about the individual in relation to community, nation, environment and planet,” they said. “By exposing the destructive and unjust beliefs currently propagated in our culture, we raise awareness of the possibility of a more balanced, sustainable, humane future.”



Tickets to The Fire of Life, showing Thursday through Saturday, October 2, 3 (8 p.m.) and 4 (7 p.m.), are $10 and can be purchased at the front desk of the Cambridge Family YMCA, 820 Mass. Ave., Central Square, Cambridge. For more information, call 857-205-3696 or email