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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Portents & prophecy as science meets spirit (or does it?) in compelling The Queen’s Conjuror

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Tim Walker, Joshua Browne & Sochi Fried in The Queen’s Conjuror – photos by John Gundy

Circlesnake Productions opened its production of Joshua Browne and Alec Toller’s The Queen’s Conjuror in The Attic Arts Hub (1402 Queen St. E., Toronto) on Thursday, directed by Toller. I caught the show last night.

A new star has recently appeared in the sky and Queen Elizabeth I (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) wants to know its meaning – particularly if it has any bearing on her reign. Scientist, magician and astrologer John Dee (Tim Walker) has been tasked with discovering the star’s meaning. He enlists the aid of scryer Edward Talbot (Joshua Browne), who is able to commune with spirits – primarily an angel called Uriel (John Fray) – who speak to him and supply him with visions.

Dee and his wife Jane (Sochi Fried) invite Talbot into their home, and find that he’s able to translate a series of strange symbols that appeared to Dee in a vision – and they begin to connect the pieces of a prophecy that seems to relate to the new star.

Their work is confounded by the torture Talbot endures during his sessions with the spirit world, as well as the suspicious, ever watchful eye of Lord William Cecil (Fray), the Queen’s advisor, who’s been set as a watchdog over the project. Working relationships evolve into friendships, and come to include Talbot’s wife Joanna (Roberts-Abdullah). How far will they go to complete the puzzle? And are Talbot’s spirits angels or demons?

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Joshua Browne & John Fray as Uriel

Lovely work from the cast in this intimate period drama, full of eerie spiritualism and ritual, signs and symbols, and the ancient science of divining from the stars, along with a touch of political intrigue. Beyond the quest for the meanings of stars and visions, The Queen’s Conjuror is about how people interpret the information they’re given – and how their subsequent actions impact on their lives.

As Dee, Walker mines the layers of a curious, learned and sharp-witted man with a passion for the truth and an eye on the Queen’s court. Possessing a logical scientific mind, he is capable of both kindness and cruelty in his pursuit; his resolve only shaken when their endeavours touch his life in a negative way. Browne gives Talbot a great combination of humility and entitlement; a gifted scryer, the price he pays for messages and visions is searing physical and emotional pain. And even he wonders if his spirit messengers come from God or the Devil. Fried’s fiercely intelligent and ambitious Jane is in the unique position of being her husband’s professional equal; a partner in his scientific and academic pursuits, she displays a quixotic passion that outstrips Dee’s. And her concern for, and care of, Talbot during his moments of collapse reveal notes of tension – of something more, something shared.

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Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Elizabeth I, with Tim Walker & Sochi Fried

Roberts-Abdullah’s Elizabeth I is regal and warm, imperious and magnanimous; she giveth and she taketh away with dispassionate efficiency. As Talbot’s wife Joanna, she is an observant, self-possessed and creative woman juggling her own work as a poet with her household duties; a nurturing, neglected wife and mother fighting for her marriage. As Uriel, Fray is menacing and manipulative; whispering secrets into Talbot’s ear and observing him as cruel child regards a distressed bug he’s been torturing. And his Cecil is a chilly and cunning authoritarian beneath the polite, charming courtier.

Portents and prophecy as science meets spirit (or does it?) in the compelling period drama The Queen’s Conjuror.

The Queen’s Conjuror continues at The Attic till Nov 20. You can get your tix in advance online – recommended, as it’s an intimate space; perfect to be a fly on the wall as the story unfolds and lives are forever changed.

Picasso & Einstein walk into a bar; art, science, women & philosophy ensue in hilarious, surreal Picasso at the Lapin Agile

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Dylan Evans (Picasso) & Will King (Einstein) in Picasso at the Lapin Agile – photo by Erika Downie

Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar.

This is the set-up for Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Seven Siblings Theatre’s current production, directed by Seven Siblings co-founder Erika Downie, which opened at Kensington Market bar venue Round last night.

It was my first time at Round, a vintage-inspired cabaret-styled bar space and a perfect immersive venue for this production. The Lapin Agile barkeep Freddie (Dylan Mawson) set the scene as the audience entered and settled, opening the bar on the playing space and jovially interacting with the audience, at least one of whom mistook him for the venue bartender (you can purchase beverages before the show starts).

Set in a bar in 1904, we find the two titans of innovation in their mid-20s and both on the brink of greatness. Einstein (company co-founder and previous production director Will King) is slogging away on his book on the theory of relativity, and Picasso (Dylan Evans) is in his blue period, struggling for instantaneous alignment between his ideas and the act of drawing them. At the top of the play, barkeep Freddie (Mawson), his sweetheart and co-worker Germaine (company co-founder Madryn McCabe) and regular Gaston (Jamie Johnson) are already pondering life, art, women and love when Einstein bursts in; and it’s not long after Picasso’s arrival that the scientist and the artist get into a heated argument that turns into a duel of science versus art.

Add to that mix an assortment of opinionated patrons and friends – a lover, friend and admirer (all played by Erin Burley), an art collector (Erik Helle), an inventor (Andrew Gaunce) and a surprise visitor (Maxwell LeBeuf) – and you have some hilarious, thought-provoking discussion and debate, as well as some predictions about the burgeoning 20th century. There is a restless, anxious and hopeful atmosphere in the bar as these characters adjust to the new century. Sparks of brilliance and absurdity abound – and it’s all big, goofy surreal fun.

Equally big fun is the sharp and engaging ensemble. Portraying the two young men on the edge of great things, King and Evans bring passion, drive and intelligence. King’s Einstein is bubbling with energy and ideas, shifting between stillness and silence and bursts of movement and thought; and Evans’ Picasso is smooth, sexy and charming – an infuriating player, but a talented and sensitive artist you can’t help but feel drawn to. And the upshot of their argument is that both men discover that they have more common ground than they thought – and that art and science are no so different after all.

Mawson’s Freddie is a great combination of affable and irreverent, and clueless with an occasional brilliant observation. Beneath the beautiful barmaid exterior, McCabe’s Germaine is insightful, astute and self-aware; her passions are her own to direct – and she has the most accurate predictions about the new century. As Gaston, Johnson brings a touch of wistful nostalgia to an otherwise grumpy older man. Saying aloud what Germaine already knows, Burley’s Suzanne (one of Picasso’s forgotten lovers) is a bright young woman who ultimately falls for Picasso with her mind, in spite of physical attraction and in spite of herself. Helle’s Sagot is flamboyant and shrewd, with an eye for important art and a mind for marketing – which affords engagement in his own artistry as a photographer. Gaunce’s self-important inventor Schmendiman is hilariously buffoonish, with a Daliesque quality to his verbal outbursts; and LeBeuf’s Visitor is a smooth, cool crooner with an interesting take on the world and its response to greatness.

The play crackles with ideas and conversation, with moments of breaking the fourth wall – even acknowledging that it’s a play – it’s a big ideas party and everyone’s invited.

Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar, and art, science, women and philosophy ensue in Seven Siblings Theatre’s wacky, surreal and immersive production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile continues at Round until Feb 28; please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time (it’s not cool when the stage manager has to hold the house for audience showing up when the show’s supposed to be starting). You can get advance tix online – strongly recommended.

You can keep up with Seven Siblings on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In the meantime, check out the show’s trailer:

Science, politics & egos collide – Measure of the World @ FireWorks

fireworks-bannerAlumnae Theatre Company opened their FireWorks program this past Wednesday, a new three-play repertory program of original works developed in conjunction with Alumnae’s New Play Development (NPD) group or the New Ideas Festival.

Science, politics and egos collide amidst the passion of discovery and desire for freedom in Shirley Barrie’s Measure of the World, directed by Molly Thom.

The play follows the work of a French expedition, guests of the Spanish government as they strive “to measure the length of a degree of the earth’s arc at the equator near Quito (at the time part of Peru)”* – and determine the exact shape of the earth. Three alpha male scientist egos come to loggerheads as Godin (Paul Cotton), Bouguer (Jason Thompson) and De La Condamine (Michael Vitorovich) struggle with the harsh terrain – extremes of heat and cold, across jungle, swamps and mountains – local government bureaucracy and even their own academic institution over the course of a multi-phased project that takes years to accomplish. All closely observed by the beautiful and mysterious servant Florenza (Jessica Zepeda).

A strong ensemble cast deals with the tech speak well – the mathematical equations and make-shift survey equipment are fascinating if not highly academic. It is the drive and passion of these characters that is particularly interesting – and Vitorovich and Zepeda stand out in this regard. Careers and livelihoods are not all that’s at stake for these characters, it’s freedom – to pursue the work they love without restraint and to return home. For Florenza, it’s freedom from slavery.

No one is as he or she appears – and one can only imagine what further secrets, both personal and political, simmer beneath the surface. It also struck me that Florenza embodies the secrets of this new, Spanish-controlled world. Secrets that the scientists, as French citizens and men, wish to uncover.

The set design (set and lighting by Ed Rosing) was created to accommodate all three plays for the FireWorks program. Neutral shades of beige and pale army green were used on the multi-levelled set, with show-specific furniture and props used to fill in the details. Lighting and, especially, sound (sound by Gabrielle D’Angelo) were tailored for each show, as were costumes (Bec Brownstone). Minimalist and effective, the design serves the overall program in an effective and understated way, allowing the individual plays to dominate the space. With shouts to producer Dahlia Katz, who did triple duty (she was also the production photographer and came out to work on the painting crew).

Measure of the World continues to run in rep with two other plays (Gloria’s Guy, by Joan Burrows/directed by Anne Harper; and Theory, by Norman Yeung/directed by Joanne Williams) until December 1. Check the Alumnae website for exact performance dates and times for each show.

*From Shirley Barrie’s program notes.