Blinded by science in the darkly funny, compelling, thoughtful Isaac’s Eye

Christo Graham & Brandon Thomas.

 

Unit 102 Actors Co. gives us fact mixed with fiction, exploring Isaac Newton’s sharp ambition and unique vision in its darkly funny, compelling, thoughtful Canadian premiere of Lucas Hnath’s Isaac’s Eye, tightly directed and inventively designed by Adam Belanger, and running at The Assembly Theatre.

With the Actor (Francis Melling) as our guide in this anachronistic look at historical figures—separating fact from fiction as the story unfolds—we become flies on the wall of the attic room where Newton works; writing verses on the walls, and plucking thoughts and theories from his fastidious, imaginative mind.

Ambitious and determined to advance his work and recognition as a scientist—and straining to see the face of God, despite his rejection of traditional religion—a 25-year-old, prematurely white-haired Isaac Newton (Christo Graham) enlists the help of childhood friend and confidant Catherine Storer (Laura Vincent), who runs her father’s apothecary shop, for an introduction to Robert Hooke, Director of Experiments at the Royal Society in London.

Refusing to answer Newton’s letters, Hooke (Brandon Thomas) is finally forced to take notice of this young upstart when he receives documents outlining Newton’s theories—particularly those on the nature of light. Fearing Newton’s work could usurp his own, he sets out to visit Newton; and encounters Sam (Melling), a sick and dying man lying on the side of the road. Sam pleads for help to get to a hospital, but refuses Hooke’s conditions for aid, and is abandoned once again.

When Hooke arrives at Newton’s house, a battle of scientific wits ensues, with Hooke’s attempts at manipulation only serving to solidify Newton’s resolve. Newton believes light=particles; Hooke believes light=waves. Hooke challenges Newton to re-enact his needle in the eye experiment using a disinterested third party as a subject to prove his theory—and he brings Sam in off the streets. Thwarted and increasingly fearful at the thought of being dismissed as a serious scientific mind, Newton resorts to blackmailing Hooke with some personally damaging information gleaned from his diary. Then, it’s Hooke’s turn to reach out to Catherine for assistance; and he fights blackmail with blackmail. And we soon learn that both men are willing to say and do anything to obtain and maintain notoriety in the scientific sphere—and science costs them.

Outstanding work from the cast, playing with fact and fiction, and history with anachronistic language and perspectives. Melling is an affable and engaging narrator to the proceedings; and gives a comic and deeply affecting performance as Sam, who despite his filthy, plague-ridden appearance has wisdom to impart on the nature of life and humanity. Graham does a great job balancing Newton’s naiveté and amorality. Full of youthful energy and enthusiasm, single-minded and driven, Newton’s ambitions are so laser-focused on obtaining professional accolades, he’s unable to really see the woman who loves and supports him. No angel himself, how far will he go to get what he wants? As Hooke, Thomas draws for us a highly intelligent, accomplished and arrogant scientist and architect, living a decidedly libertine lifestyle. Possessing of a deeply jealous yet detached disposition, Hooke can be cruel and sadistic in methodology and manipulative in human interaction. Like Newton, he’s an extremely fucked up and lonely man—but unlike Newton, he knows it. As Catherine, Vincent gives us a shrewd, pragmatic and protectively loyal woman who’s nobody’s fool or doormat. With hopes and desires of her own, Catherine knows she has bad taste in men; and while she’s willing to help, she won’t suffer fools long. Like Sam, Catherine can see that which Newton cannot and Hooke can only grasp at: the grace inherent in everyday life.

What is the cost of ambition? Who and what is important, and who gets to judge? How do we see the world—and what do we miss?

Isaac’s Eye continues at The Assembly Theatre until October 20; get advance tickets online or at the door (cash only)—box office opens half an hour before show time.

 

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Titanic mystery & intrigue in Amicus Productions’ haunting, twisting Scotland Road

scotland road deck chair!Amicus Productions explores the romance, mystery and tragedy of the Titanic in its production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Scotland Road, directed by Victoria Shepherd.

“The Titanic – a symbol of arrogance, glamour and tragedy – has captured the imagination and passion of generations … Scotland Road tells the story of a passion so powerful that it transcends time and logic, completing a journey that was started over one hundred years ago.” – Victoria Shepherd (from the Scotland Road press release)

This is a perfect play for director Shepherd, a Titanic aficionado with a wealth of knowledge about the subject and a great love of storytelling. The “Scotland Road” of the play’s title refers to the lower-deck passageway that ran the length of the RMS Titanic. The cast does a lovely job handling the layers of these characters – like the enigmatic young woman, rescued as she floated in period dress on a piece of ice in the north Atlantic, each has his or her own mystery, and even a secret or two.

West McDonald is aloof, arrogant and entitled as John, with a touch of ruthlessness and cruelty – or is it something else? Laura Vincent takes the mystery-shrouded Woman from a mute, statue-like victim to a haunted, dreamy and passionate survivor. As the Woman’s medical caregiver, Anne McDougall gives us a Halbrech with compassion and empathy, protective of her young patient, with a decidedly tough and irreverent edge. As the last living Titanic survivor Frances Kittle, Paulette St-Amour brings a wry-witted, no-nonsense attitude to a seemingly frail and elderly recluse. But no one is as he or she seems.

Big shouts to a fabulous design team – Alexis Chubb (set), Emily Haig (costumes) and Jamie Sample (lighting) – whose work creates a world that’s time-trippy and eerie, the sterile and sparsely furnished set bringing to mind a piece of modern, utilitarian architecture, an iceberg and even the Titanic itself. And to master carpenter Brent Shepherd for the gorgeous replica first class deck chair (made of oak and pictured in the set photo at the beginning of this post), and sound designer/composer John Stuart Campbell for the evocative and haunting original soundtrack (give a listen to the song “Take Me Down”).

A family affair production, the soundtrack also includes voice-over and backup vocals from the Shepherds’ daughter Vivien, with additional voice-over work from Christien Shepherd, and young family friends Oliver and Finn Scott.

So much goes on during the course of this long one-act “metaphysical fairytale” (thanks to Victoria Shepherd for this phrase) that just when you think you’ve figured it out and can see where it’s going, it takes another turn. Then it’s over. And so quickly.

Check out the trailer for Scotland Road.

But wait – there’s more!

Artist Matt Chapman exhibits his Titanic-themed canvasses and plays music from onboard the ship before each performance. Read about Chapman’s first solo exhibit.

Scotland Road runs at the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills until February 8. Check the Amicus website for exact dates, times and ticket reservations.