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Review: Innovocative Theatre, A New Theatre Company, Debuts with David Auburn's PROOF

"Beautiful mathematics. The most elegant proofs, perfect proofs, proofs like music . . ." --Catherine in PROOF

No, it's not a typo. The new theatre company's name is Innovocative Theatre, which immediately gets a red underline when I type it in my Word document (it thinks it's a misspelling). There is obviously no such word, but it has been cleverly created by Staci Sabarsky and Dennis Duggan for their new theatre company, incorporating two of my favorite words, "innovative" and "provocative." So now Tampa has Innovocative Theatre. And they come out of the starting gates with their first full-length production: David Auburn's classic, PROOF, performed at the Stageworks Theatre thru July 30th. It's an easy choice to start their season, a ringer of sorts, having the two leads (as well as the director and the lighting designer) return from the rave-reviewed production in New Port Richey late last year. But now they've moved the show to Tampa where more audiences will get to experience it--a satisfying production of a great Pulitzer Prize winning script.

In PROOF, Catherine has been putting her own math career on hold in order to care for her brilliant, but mentally ill father, Robert, for some time. Upon his death, his ex-graduate student (and Catherine's future lover) is going through papers in his office and discovers a key proof about shifting paradigm-numbers. The question arises: Did Robert write the proof, perhaps his one clear thought in those years drowning in mental illness, or was it actually helmed by his daughter? Can Catherine offer proof (hence the show's title) that she is indeed its author? And is she a mathematical genius like her father, and is it inevitable that she will also inherit his mental illness?

It's a potent, powerful script, quite taut, and the folks at Innovocative Theatre are smart to start their journey as a theatre company producing it.

As Robert, the towering math genius at the University of Chicago, Dennis Duggan is a force of nature. He's an imposing figure, bigger than life, and with his full gray beard he resembles Richard Attenborough mixed with Van Gogh's "Portrait of an Old Man with Beard." Although Duggan only appears in three scenes in PROOF, you feel his presence throughout. And when he's onstage, you can't help but watch him, and there is a scene in Act 2 of PROOF that may be the best thing Duggan has ever done. It's heartbreaking and real, where the actor gets to run the gamut of emotions and showcase his immense abilities. It's revelatory. I won't give away the particulars because it features a major plot point, but know that it's easily the finest scene in the show (and one of the strongest scenes I've seen all year in any Bay Area show).

Although the part of Robert is another feather in the talented Mr. Duggan's cap, it's not perfect. In the very first scene of the show he seemed somewhat disconnected, as if he had to keep fishing for lines. It takes awhile for the show to take off from this slow beginning, where the actor seems to be unnecessarily wandering around the stage for no real reason...walk downstage, turn back around, walk downstage again, turn back around, and so on. But then Duggan's work in Act 2 comes around, and he shines.

Staci Sabarsky not only directs the show, she plays Claire, Catherine's sister and the non-academic outsider of the show. Sabarsky is a burst of energy, a pump of adrenaline, whenever she hits the stage. Devin Devi underplays quite well as Hal, Robert's former student and Catherine's lover, and he portrays the anchor of sanity.

But the show belongs to Marie-Claude Tremblay, the only cast member without an alliterative name. As Catherine, sort of a volatile Geek Princess to her father's mentally shaky Geek God, Tremblay is the real deal. Filled with pain and doubt, instability and obvious intelligence, she is in turmoil not only over her father's death (and life, where she was his caregiver) but over her own precariousness. It's an actresses' dream role, and Tremblay more than fills the bill. I love it when I see a performer new to the area that has me raving from the top of proverbial mountains--watch this performance!

Ms. Sabarsky has guided the production well, with the exception of occasional stagey blocking (actors wandering with no apparent purpose). Jeannine Borzello's set works well, although it did remind me of The Aliens set in the same theatre (which also took place in a backyard porch). I particularly liked the incompleteness of the home and fence, which underscores the show's themes--nothing outside of math equations seems complete or solid in this world. And the ivy crawling down the brick wall was a nice touch.

Matt Beil's lighting design works wonders. I particularly like the opening moment, Robert standing behind the screen door, lit in shadows, almost ghostly. I wish the lighting could match one of the chilly Act 2 scenes, set in 30-degree weather, so that we in the audience can also experience or at least get a feeling of that cold (the lighting does change to suggest this later in the scene).

But this is a solid production, rather safe, and definitely worth seeing.

So we excitedly welcome Innovocative Theatre to our local theatre family. And the good news is, they score a win with their first outing. PROOF is a good show, and I can't wait until they deliver a great one. And that may happen sooner than you think because their next chance is Jane Martin's Keely & Du, opening at Stageworks in January 2018. Can't wait!

Innovocative Theatre's production of PROOF plays at Stageworks Theatre until July 30th.

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