BWW Review: Rubicon Presents a Daring INCOGNITO
Incognito/by Nick Payne/directed by Katharine Farmer/Rubicon Theatre, Ventura/through October 1
Upon entering the Rubicon opening night, I first remarked the bare stage with four chairs against a solid color background that would serve as a sort of screen for projections (Mike Billings-set, lighting, projection designer). This kind of setup usually indicates that there is no set for the play and that the actors will sit and move about to create the scenarios. This can be a good thing or bad depending on the content and framework of the play. In this case Incognito, a west coast premiere by British playwright Nick Payne, presents on the surface quite a bit to swallow. The message beneath, however, is much more simplistic, and the ensemble of actors under the supremely intelligent direction of Katharine Farmer make the play worth a trip to Ventura to the Rubicon Theatre now through October 1.
Payne has composed a series of fast-paced scenes, much like a musical composition. in which the four actors Joseph Fuqua, Betsy Zajko, Mark Jacobson and Claire Adams create many different characters -grappling with mind-boggling issues - from the UK and US between 1955-2013. Two of these characters are based on actual people ... and Albert Einstein plays a large part in two of the storylines. Scientist Einstein, of the famous Theory of Relativity, also loved the arts and played the piano...of interest because one of the stories involves Henry Maison or Molaison (Mark Jacobson) who was the first man to receive a lobotomy that cured his epileptic seizures. Nevertheless, the cure left him with short-term memory. So, he could play the piano, but couldn't remember that he was able to play. Every 30 seconds he would have to be reminded that his wife Margaret (Adams) and consultant Victor Milnar (Fuqua) were there talking to him. A brilliant man who led an otherwise healthy life, but who had to face very difficult challenges throughout his 82 years. As far as Einstein is concerned, when he died in 1955, pathologist Thomas Harvey (Fuqua) performed an autopsy and then proceeded to keep his brain in order to perform extensive research on it. Little did he know that a journalist (Jacobson) would betray his trust, print an article stating that he had stolen the brain, which led to him losing credibility as well as his job. Another man forced to face the unknown. How did he cope with his feelings? There is also a story about Evelyn Einstein (Zajko), an adopted cult deprogrammer, who it was believed, was Albert Einstein's granddaughter. She never took a DNA test, so there was no proof, but she too faced the mystery of self, who she was and how she would manage to live her life.
The structure of Payne's play mirrors his themes. The action goes back and forth through the years; scenes collide or overlap... and within seconds the actors must expose the plight of one or two characters and then proceed to the next. It's a fascinating expose, boiling down to one of Einstein's most prfound quotes:
"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." How these characters faced their dilemmas through time is at the core. Incognito is a disguise or cover. The meaning extends to all humanity who find inspiration in imagination. How else can change occur? How can we move ahead without it? For some, it's pure faith; for others, it's strong will that must somehow include intuition/imagination.
Under Farmer's meticulous direction the four actors do stunning work. Changing accents from American to British and Irish, they nail each character with great skill. Little dramatic scenes like Zajko and Adams facing a lesbian relationship or Zajko as another character divorcing her husband, played by Fuqua, who goes off and falls instantly in love with a waitress... all of these moments are theatrically riveting and fulfilling.
Don't miss Incognito! I was a tad baffled by some moments at first, but I left the theatre curious and interested in the material, particularly the association of science and music. Improvisational artist Roger Kellaway has composed a lovely piece for Henry to play (Jacobson mimes the piano playing) at play's end. I laud the Rubicon for being adventuresome, for presenting an innovative piece that would normally be presented by the Mark Taper Forum. Their fine artistry is becoming unlimited.