BWW REVIEWS: PARTITION - Play By The Numbers
In playwright Ira Hauptman's work, "Partition," British mathematician Harold Hardy explains "partition theory" as the number of ways one may express a whole number through the addition of other whole numbers. By way of example, the partition of 3 is 3: there's 3+0, 2+1, and 1+1+1. Three ways to get to three.
Partition theory might seem to give credence to the notion that the whole cannot be more than the sum of its parts...for no matter how you break down "three," it is never more or less than three.
Of course, this works fine with integers, but people...that's another matter.
There is much "numerical" about Hauptman's play which is based on real-life figures G. Harold Hardy who, in 1914, took it upon himself to mentor a young Indian named Srinivasa Iyengar Ramanujan.
Ramanujan was working as a clerk (as it seems the fate of such geniuses...Einstein anyone?) when he caught Hardy's attention, sending the Cambridge University scholar samples of his theorems. As Wikipedia relates, Ramanujan "became a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow Trinitiy College, Cambridge" before "dying of illness, malnutrition and possibly liver infection in 1920 at the age of 32."
That's the historical framework of the play. Ivan Zizek plays Hardy and Maboud "E" Ebrahimzadeh portrays Ramanujan; there is also intermittent appearances by Pierre de Fermat, a 17th century lawyer and amateur mathematician who is considered one of the progenitors of modern calculus. His famed "Last Theorem" left the wreckage of more than three centuries' worth of frustrated mathematicians in its wake, all trying in vain to prove it (it finally would be proven in 1995). Actor Thom Eric Sinn plays Fermat as a comic, pompous, mischievous, Rene DesCartes-hating soul who purposely destroyed his copy of the theorem's proof as a white-glove-cross-the-face to the generations to follow.
Proving Fermat's Theory becomes a tragic quest for Ramanujan, who accepts the challenge at his mentor's request and pursues it obsessively, perhaps due to mental illness, due to cultural and religious beliefs, a sense of personal honor or simply because he could not stop.
Hardy claims that while Ramanujan's ability to delve new theorems is "Hopp's class" (named for a top cricketer of the time), his protégé is only "half a mathematician" for he is not adept at developing proofs. "What good are theorems you cannot prove?" Hardy asks, a mindset shaped by proper English pragmatism. It is ironic, as Hardy speaks before an assembly of Royal Society of mathematicians, claiming that "applied mathematics is not real mathematics at all," that the true beauty of mathematics lies in its "utter uselessness." He quotes Oscar Wilde, "Art is for art's sake," then claims that math should be "for art's sake" as well.
One senses that this is how Ramanujan looks at math. Theorems are the stuff of dreams, quite literally, as the Hindu goddess, Namagiri Lakshmi (Devika Bhise) visits Ramanujan while he sleeps, leaving him the poetry of mathematics on his tongue so it is "the first thing he tastes" when he awakens the next day.
Ebrahimzadeh portrays Ramanujan as a man pulled by forces beyond his own control. He cannot care properly for himself, and is visited by Namagiri who is more mother hen than goddess, clucking about Ramanujan's missing blanket and shoes like a soccer Mom dealing with an eternally distracted, messy teenager.
Ramanujan's ability with numbers is simply a gift, something that flows from him, but in which he seems to have no personal interest. There are no passages where Ramanujan explains his affinity with numbers or if they mean anything at all to him. One senses that if Namagiri had left him recipes on his tongue, he'd have been sending instructions on how to make the perfect flourless chocolate torte to Julia Child.
As the title of the play suggests, there are many "partitions" in this play; partitions not only between the characters who are separated by class, culture and ethnicity, but partitions within the characters themselves. Zizek does an exceptionally good job in this regard, as his Hardy seems at odds with everything, clashing with his friend, Alfred (Fred Nelson), the police (Andrew Keating as Police Officer) and Ramanujan. Zizek plays Hardy as perpetually stiff, moving and speaking in a halting manner as if his mouth can't keep up with his brain. Hardy definitely comes across as a mathematician, that is, a man much more comfortable in the company of algebraic formulas than human beings.
Nelson's Alfred is the humanist in this particular theatrical equation; unlike Hardy and Ramanajan, the character of AlFred Billington is a creation of the playwright, though is based "on members of the Cambridge University Apostles Society, especially the classics scholars John T. Sheppard and Henry Jackson," according to director John Sadowsky's "Director's Notes."
While Zizek's Hardy moves about like a man wearing starched underwear too sizes too small, Nelson's Alfred lumbers like a likeable bear; his speech, like his attitude, friendly, smooth, and warm. Alfred is not afraid to show his emotions, and does so, particularly when he senses what might be Ramanujan's ultimate fate.
As is typical of a Spotlighers production, less is more, as director Sadowsky manages to transform the theater's intimate stage into a university assembly hall, a train station, Ramanujan's sparse room, and more.
"Partition" continues its run at The Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul Street in downtown Baltimore, now through March 28th. For more information, call 410-752-1225 or visit www.spotlighters.org.