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Isaac’s Eye

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Robin Gabrielli, Adam Niemann, Jeunée Simon, Gabriel Ross. All photos by Jay Yamada.

Amadeus for scientists

The layperson may look both at the great intellects of science and the great laws that they’ve promulgated as standing above all others in pristine singularity. In truth, even what appears to be objective and indisputable truth coming from men (usually) of great wisdom and integrity often emerges from the muck of selfish, mean, and ego-driven agendas. And as with many other competitions, a champion is anointed, and the vanquished, whatever their previous records, are consigned to the dustbin of history.

Those who are familiar with Peter Shaffer’s brilliant play “Amadeus,” in which the modestly-talented, established Salieri attempts to undermine the precocious Mozart but is eclipsed by his genius, will find a parallel theme in Lucas Hnath’s compelling comic-drama, “Isaac’s Eye.” Isaac is the colossal thinker Isaac Newton, whose discoveries concerning calculus, gravity, and mechanics have so profoundly effected the history of science, and therefore invention and processes, and therefore, our very way of life.

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Adam Niemann, Gabriel Ross, Robin Gabrielli.

Newton’s Salieri was Robert Hooke, who at their first meeting was not only the Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society, but possessed a catalogue of scientific achievement unrivaled in his time, from a law on elasticity, to the identification of the cell as the building block of life, to fundamentals on gravity that Newton would build upon. But as Newton’s star would rise, Hooke would become largely forgotten until the re-emergence of some of his documents in the 20th century.

The central events of Hnath’s play concern the 25 year old Newton’s quest to become a member of the Royal Society, which would give him the credibility to financially support his research. In the absence of much historical detail about the relationship between the two scientists, the playwright uses facts, fudge, and fiction to create a script full of humor and drama.

Hnath uses a unique device to inform the viewer of what in the script is certifiably true. He employs a character called The Actor, who narrates and writes factual matters on white boards that flank three sides of the stage as they occur in the action. The Actor, Adam Niemann, doubles as a man dying from the plague, and he draws unusually rich portraits in both roles that could otherwise be quite static.

Hooke is a gatekeeper to the Royal Society, and he is drawn into Newton’s orbit because the manuscript that Newton forces upon him reveals the younger man’s genius. Robin Gabrielli plays Hooke with devilish flamboyance, capturing the character’s flippant arrogance and smiling condescension with great comic timing. In an attempt to discourage Newton from pursuing science, Hooke demands that he validate his theory about the relativity of perceived light by confirming it through a painful experiment that involves temporarily distorting one’s eye, thus, the name of the play.

Gabriel Ross is brilliant as Isaac. Equally as self-absorbed as Hooke, Newton possesses driving persistence; the confidence that he is guided by the voice of God despite exhibiting inconsistencies; and willingness to connive and bend the truth to meet his objectives. While Ross captures all of those elements with great skill, he finds a human dimension in Newton that enriches the characterization – the petulance of youth. His whiney impatience helps produce a whole person rather than a stick figure of great eminence.

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Gabriel Ross.

Jeunée Simon is delightful as the luminous Catherine, the village apothecary, who is Isaac’s long time main squeeze. (That term is used advisedly, as one of Hnath’s other conceits is to script the dialog in modern American accent and usage, including frequent idioms and vulgarities.) Simon captures Catherine’s plaintiff earnestness as well as a coquetishness when she finds herself desired by Hooke as well as Newton.

An added element to the plot concerns both scientists’ patronizing behavior toward women. Newton is satisfied with a platonic relationship with Catherine, as he wants her to be available for quiet social intercourse. Conversely, Hooke’s yearning for women derives from his gargantuan appetite for sex. His scientist’s compulsion to record his rendezvous and conquests explicitly in a diary would become a point of vulnerability. We might consider a contemporary indiscretion and wonder if a purported sex event involving President Trump in Russia could have similar consequences. Oddly, Hooke’s diary would also figure in on his rehabilitation as a great man of science.

“Isaac’s Eye” is cleverly written and highly engaging. The acting ensemble is extraordinary at fleshing out these characters. An argument can be made that the consistently high energy level of the acting drains the drama a bit, but that would be a minor infraction.

“Isaac’s Eye” by Lucas Hnath is produced by Custom Made Theatre and is performed at their stage at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco, through March 11, 2017.

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