ISAAC'S EYEby Lucas Hnath
Outcry Theatre Company
Directed by Becca Johnson-Spinos
Costume Design – Price Wayne Christian
Sound Design – Jason Johnson-Spinos
Projection Design – Jason Johnson-Spinos
Isaac Newton – Price Wayne Christian
Robert Hooke – Duc Huu Nguyen
Catherine – Sarah Elizabeth Smith
Actor/Sam – Jason Johnson-Spinos
All photographs by Jason Johnson-Spinos
Reviewed Performance: 1/14/2014
Reviewed by Rachel Elizabeth Khoriander, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Set during the period in which Cambridge University, the alma mater of science legend Newton, temporarily closed as a precaution against The Great Plague, Isaac's Eye depicts the private experiments Newton conducted at his home in Woolsthorpe. The primary conflict takes the form of Newton sharing his work with Robert Hooke, a preeminent scientist in his own right, and begging him to support his petition to join the Royal Society. As it turns out, Newton has been exploring the same topics as Hooke and a nonplussed Hooke visits Woolsthorpe in the hopes of discouraging Newton so that Hooke can publish his results first.
What would Outcry's intended audience find intriguing about that, you ask?
Well, first, one of the experiments consists of Newton inserting a very long (and visually ever-present) needle into his tear duct. While the play claims that Newton did so in an attempt to better understand optics and the properties of light, discussions and re-enactments of the experience result in many cringe-inducing moments that are certain to grab the attention of the most skeptical theatregoer. Did I mention that the needle is very long, extremely ominous, and always on stage?
Second, Isaac's Eye is not your typical stuffy period piece. While it is ostensibly set in the plague-ridden 17th century, the costuming and dialogue are decidedly contemporary. Characters indiscriminately drop expletives and use modern slang, and costumes associate their characters with current stereotypes. Newton's slightly ill-fitting shirt and sweater mark him as a geek; Hooke's chinos, jacket, and low-slung messenger bag showcase yuppie-hipster tendencies; and Catherine’s comfortable leggings and cardigan portray her as the kind, low-maintenance sort. The seeming aim of Isaac's Eye is to bring its characters into the 21st century so we can see them as they ultimately would be in our modern world. And it's funny to boot.
In order to modernize the story, playwright Lucas Hnath has liberally interspersed a multitude of fictions among its slew of facts, which he explains away as "just a little lie to help you see something that's difficult to see." These fictions include a love triangle, a blackmailing scheme, and various rifts in the true chronology of events. In order to keep track of what is true and what is not, a narrator routinely points out the falsities and their possible meanings. In addition, the actors continually jot down the (often equally lascivious) facts on large chalkboards that form the posterior walls of the set.
The set itself is rather urban and sparse, consisting of the aforementioned chalkboard walls, a chalkboard covered desk, a chair, and yet another chalkboard that Newton uses to illustrate his points. The backdrop to these pieces is a large projection screen. While the overall feeling generated by this setup is rather austere, it also emphasizes the ideas discussed in the plot and that the piece takes place entirely within the mind.
Similarly, lighting and music are simplistic. The lighting is dim and industrial but seamlessly keeps the audience's interest directed on either the action or the fact-laden chalkboards when necessary. Sound effects and music are utilized sparingly but are well-timed, though some of the science-related tracks played before the show and at intermission are repetitive.
All of the sparsity and modernity puts the emphasis squarely on the tiny cast of Isaac's Eye, and Outcry's actors do a fine job.
Price Wayne Christian plays Newton as a socially inept, irascible youth who is highly ambitious and extremely poor at taking criticism. He is so focused on his work that he seems unable to relate to others. To emphasize this, Christian moves stiffly and awkwardly, sulks when he doesn't get his way, and shakes his fists in the air while hunching and uttering a muffled "Yay!" when confronted with good news. His softer side only seems to come out when he is confronted with his childhood friend, Catherine, and yet his darting looks and quick disengagement belie a discomfort that seems to plague all of Newton's human relationships.
Duc Huu Nguyen is Robert Hooke, the scientific star that Newton is attempting to eclipse. Hooke is less well-known now but was a notable scientist in his own right, and Nguyen plays him with a strutting, cocky arrogance that belies a fear of failure. Nguyen's slyness contains an underlying air of malice, portrayed by calculated and sometimes startled glances and stiffened posture at various moments. Further, Nguyen is excellent at portraying a range of emotion; he is chillingly believable when coldly requesting pieces of a living human being in order to further his research, yet also gives a particularly impassioned performance when being blackmailed by Newton in a scene which clearly emphasizes the dangerous turn their relationship has taken.
Sarah Elizabeth Smith plays Catherine, Newton's appealingly gentle yet strong childhood friend who serves as his only support and confidante. The daughter of an apothecary who mentored Newton as a youth, Catherine clearly loves Newton and is trying to determine whether her love will be returned. Smith's gentle demeanor and lengthened glances betray Catherine's affection for Newton, and her defeated posturing display her fears that Newton sees her more as a lab assistant than as a woman. These physical manifestations make the subsequent betrayals and love triangle that develops between Newton, Catherine, and Hooke more believable than they otherwise might be. Ultimately, it is Smith's performance that clearly defines what the scientists are eschewing in their quest for greatness.
Jason Johnson-Spinos sets an initial playful tone in his narration as the Actor with his eye rolling and sarcastic tone, which encourages the audience to look on Newton (and eventually Hooke) less as an icon of science and more as a flawed human being. Later, Johnson-Spinos doubles as Sam, a man dying of the plague who becomes the subject of a Hooke/Newton joint experiment and an unwitting pawn in their game. Often, the script calls for Johnson-Spinos to slip seamlessly between the characters of the Actor and Sam, and he does so without strain and without causing any loss of plot coherence. As Sam, Johnson-Spinos deftly alternates between jocularity and despair, and his over-wrought writhing is variably humorous and painful to behold. One of the most touching moments in the entire play consists of Johnson-Spinos as a dying Sam, begging for Newton and Hooke to treat him as a human being while they probe him. Here, Johnson-Spinos’s heartfelt explanation of how he became ill, piercing gaze, and intensity add poignancy to his attempt to reach the scientists on an emotional level. It is in this moment that he truly shines.
Both one of the strengths and one of the weaknesses of the play is the mishmash of topics that are explored throughout the course of its plot. To wit, during the approximate two-hour running time of Isaac's Eye, the playwright introduces us to the concepts of sex and drugs; incest; the seemingly inevitable interrelation of religion and heresy when exploring the sciences; academic and professional rivalry; the importance and pitfalls surrounding scientific investigation; the conflict between family life and career; what people are willing to do and willing to give up in order to achieve intellectual immortality; the importance of human contact during one's lifetime; and the effect that human contact during one’s lifetime (or lack thereof) ultimately has on that quest for intellectual immortality.
The play often jumps randomly from one to another, which can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. In particular, the first act of Outcry's production seems a little lacking in cohesion as it attempts to creakily deal with this variety of topics. However, all of the ideas examined in Isaac's Eye are quite worthy of investigation and by the second, much darker, act, the gears are nicely lubricated.
In the end, Isaac's Eye succeeds in combining a decent amount of scripted depth with humor and originality, and Outcry's production is an enjoyable way to spend an evening. And it just might get you interested in delving further into the dark secrets of the enmities and peculiar personalities who illuminated the scientific laws of our world.
The Studio Theatre in the Addison Theatre Centre
15650 Addison Road
Addison, Texas 75001
Runs through February 2nd
Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm.
Tickets are $10.00 cash or check, payable at the door.
For information, go to www.outcrytheatre.com or call the box office at 972-836-7206.