Indra’s Net Theater occupies a unique niche among Bay Area theater companies, producing only plays that pertain to science and great ideas – a small domain that may not have inherent appeal to more artsy theater goers. Past productions have included non-fiction such as The Secret of Life and Copenhagen as well as fantasy like Darwin in Malibu. These plays derive their power by dealing with scientific matters that affect our lives – DNA, atomic weaponry, and evolution. Also, the scientists behind the ideas are among the rock stars of science.
Partition, which takes place in the early 20th century, doesn’t share the same jump start of being about impactful topics and legendary people. Although the protagonist, Srinivasa Ramanujan, is the subject of the modest 2015 film The Man Who Knew Infinity, his fame pales by comparison, and his contributions are of no practical consequence. Indeed, his mentor at Cambridge University, Howard Hardy, takes pride that within mathematics, only their field of pure mathematics possesses beauty precisely because it has no utility.
Despite its seeming comparative disadvantages, including the abstruseness of most of the theorems referenced by the characters, Partition works as fine entertainment. It touches on numerous issues that have universal significance. Further, its characters are fascinating, and their portrayals by a worthy cast are convincing and engaging.
Before his invitation to Cambridge, Ramanujan is a clerk in India who claims to receive theorems in his sleep from the Hindu Goddess Namagiri of Namakkal. He even communes with her during the day. Perhaps because he sees himself as a vessel rather than a seminal thinker, he is modest. His diffidence and constant worry are captured with great skill by Heren Patel, who creates an empathetic character.
The character of Namagiri adds a colorful mysticism to the exploration of an otherwise arid discipline. Avanthika Srinivasan charms as she both goads Ramanujan and tries to bring peace to his troubled mind. Srinivasan’s other talents are put to great effect as the role also calls for several occasions of Indian singing and dancing.
The social and religious contrasts between Ramanujan and Hardy are profound. Alan Coyne is appropriately imperious as the highly individualistic Hardy who is always willing to take unpopular positions. Hardy’s greatest conflict point with his protégé however does not deal with humanity, but their divergent views on research.
Scientific knowledge in mathematics is built by a process in which theorems are proposed which are then subjected to proof. Ramanujan’s fecund intellect generates an endless stream of complex theorems, but he lacks the patience or desire to work out proofs. Hardy is currently dedicated to proofs. Accordingly, he assigns the protégé a task to prove 17th century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat’s last theorem. But why would Hardy derail Ramanujan from his wildly productive pursuits?
In Partition, the playwright introduces us not only to memorable scientific personages, but also to the human foibles in the development and acceptance of scientific knowledge. To outsiders, scientific knowledge may seem to be objective and dispassionate. And although scientists may stand at the top of the moral heap when compared to other occupations, they have their own pride, agendas, and blind spots that can act to obstruct progress toward understanding.
In a sense, the title Partition is a bit curious. There is reference in the play to Ramanujan’s partition theorem in which partitions are defined as the various ways in which whole, non-negative numbers can be combined to total another number. For instance, 3 can be partitioned three ways: 0 + 3 or 1 + 2 or 1 +1 +1. But that notion isn’t taken any further in the play. Presumably, the playwright has symbolism in mind as in the partition between English and Indian, atheist and Hindu, practicing and believing, compassion and indifference, theorem and proof.
Hauptman’s play is highly entertaining and accessible. To extend the action beyond the three primary figures, he introduces two additional characters. David Boyll plays Alfred Billington with great aplomb. He is Hardy’s proper but humanistic colleague who tries to influence Hardy in his relationship with Ramanujan. Finally, in another conceit, the author has Fermat appear as a spirit and in flashback. The egocentric Fermat is played with great humor and confidence by Marco Aponte.
For a “small” play, scene changes abound. Director Bruce Coughran harnesses his resources well in the small performance space by using lighting and partitioning the floor space into four locations to delineate them. One criticism is that each location is on a slightly elevated platform with small gaps in between the locations. This unnecessarily complicates movements and risks tripping. Notwithstanding minor flaws, Indra’s Net scores another success with this interesting and informative offering.
Partition, written by Ira Hauptman and produced by Indra’s Net Theatre plays at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley, CA, through January 14, 2018.