Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Isaac's Eye"

Isaac’s Eye
Lucas Hnath

Robin Gabrielli, Adam Niemann, Jeunée Simon & Gabriel A. Ross
Walking out of a bioplay, audience members today are often immediately asking Google, “Did such and such really happen or not?”  Lucas Hnath has solved that problem for us in his play, Isaac’s Eye, about the early, pre-fame life of Sir Isaac Newton.  During the course of the play, as 20-something Isaac and others posit various claims as facts, an observing (and often commenting with full smirk and smile) “Actor” writes the fact, quote, name, or anecdote on one of three, large whiteboards engulfing the stage if and only if the said items are actually true.  In this way, we as audience know that Isaac was in fact white-haired in his twenties (even though on stage he clearly has dark hair), smashed in a kid’s face as a schoolboy, lived during the 1665-66 English plague, and actually did the experiment we are at one point witnessing (with queasy stomachs) that involves a darning needle and his eye.  With a stellar cast of four, Custom Made Theatre Company presents both some key facts and many entertaining fictions about young Isaac Newton in a two-act comedy that is filled with much drama and poignancy – and with the added twist of its seventeenth century history played out in the modern day.

The impetuous Isaac we meet -- with foot that never eases up its nervous shaking and neck veins that appear permanently swollen – has a clear goal in life:  “People will see my importance after I’m dead and will know what I did.”  To that end, he is obsessed trying to get into the learned and hallowed Royal Society (true fact, as we see it written on wall) and its group of famed scientists, including Robert Hooke (already renowned at the time with a “Law” about elasticity), whose help Isaac solicits as a sponsor for membership.  Hooke and Newton meet only after the headstrong Isaac entices the older scientist with a paper outlining his beliefs that light consists of particles (which Hooke has proclaimed is made of waves).  Sparks ignite immediately between the two super egos, with Catherine Storer  -- Isaac’s childhood friend and single love of his life (another true fact, it seems) -- finding herself in the middle of what will become a strange and volatile triangle of lovers, friends, and foes.  All the time, our sidelined Actor observes, narrates as needed, and adds a lot of humor for us as audience with his snarky remarks and his fantastic facial reactions.

Gabriel A. Ross
As Isaac, Gabriel A. Ross is a bundle of taunt nerves looking as if they might explode at any moment.  Intensity personified in every move, stare, and vocal emission, Isaac seeks “getting into God’s brain.”  “If it’s something I can’t see, I want to see it,” Isaac emphatically declares.  Prone to sudden outbursts of passion, amusement, and especially anger, Mr. Ross employs every ounce of his being to embody the determination of this aspiring scientist who will indeed be revered worldwide in his own lifetime and long remembered by school children to this day.  Like a kid who is a third of his actual, mid-twenties age, he sometimes yells a silly “Yay” while clasping his hands in the air.  But with eyes full of fire and jaw firmly set, he is quickly capable as an adult to invoke full revenge when crossed.  And with full confidence and an air of omniscience, he gloats, “If I can pull all this together, then I can see Him [i.e., God].”

Robin Gabrielli & Adam Niemann
His would-be supporter but soon rival, Robert Hooke, is deliciously portrayed by Robin Gabrielli, who arrives on the scene in pin-stripe suit, close-cut beard, and all the looks of success.  There is hardly enough room on stage for his ego as we first meet him. The cynicism behind his big smile is drippingly evident as he first meets and talks to the young upstart, Isaac (whom he clearly already fears as smarter than he).  At one point when he quizzes Isaac about his theories and experiments, Mr. Gabrielli is like a courtroom lawyer set on drilling the accused into submissive admissions of guilt.  Employing sighs of disgust, open mouth of feigned disbelief, and fingers that point with intent of intimidation, his Hooke is in full control – until he is not.  And that opposite portrayal is just as wonderful to watch Mr. Gabriella enact.

Gabriel A. Ross & Jeunée Simon
As Isaac’s friend, lover, and would-be wife, Catherine Storer, Jeunée Simon often speaks volumes without uttering a sound.  The expressions she uses are contemporary enough for us immediately to read their meaning, but their intent is the same that women have been aiming at their self-centered men throughout the ages.  But when Catherine is aroused – either through love or anger – Ms. Storer knows full well how to show those emotions believably and forcefully in voice and body.  The strength and integrity of character she shows in her knowing eyes is in great contrast to the two men who each seek her to be the key to their defeat of the other.

Coming close to stealing the entire show is the guy mostly in the background at the whiteboard of revealed truths, Adam Niemann, identified in the program simply as “Actor.”  He is clearly a modern commentator, often giving us narrative that helps put events and quotes of the play into a context we can better understand.  His quips and insertions of opinion and observation are usually quick and hilarious, and he too (like Catherine) makes great use of ongoing, subtle nonverbals that entertain through their silent (but loudly understood) messages.  He also steps into the story as Sam, a roadside victim of the Plague whom Hooke encounters on the road; and the wide range of emotional and physical devices he calls upon as the sick and dying solicitor of Hooke’s aid are nothing short of stunning. 

The simple, yet effective set design of Sarah Phykitt (a board set on two filing cabinets serving as a long table, surrounded by the three whiteboards) establishes the contemporary feel on the small Custom Made stage.  The harsh, florescent lighting in Maxx Kurzunski’s design brings the long-ago scenes of history smack dab into our right-now reality.  Lindsey Eiffert’s costumes continue that transformation of history into modern day as do the music and background moods picked by sound designer, Ryan Lee Short. 

Putting it all together is the astute direction of Oren Stevens, who cleverly lets us see beyond the main stage at times when a character like Catherine gains more insight than her male rivals suspect.  His placement of key players in relation to each other -- sometimes within inches and other times squared opposite as if about to duel -- is masterful.  The only slight downside, either through fault of script or direction, is that the second act’s middle begins to lose energy and focus for a time with a feeling of restlessness as an audience member being the result.  Luckily, that dip is quickly recovered as the climax of the story approaches.

Lucas Hnath, whose The Christians is just finishing a successful and highly touted run at nearby San Francisco Playhouse, has made history come fully alive with his modern-setting treatment of a part of Sir Isaac’s life that most of us have never heard.  Custom Made Theatre Company has taken his cue and turned Isaac’s Eye into a fully entertaining, surprising, and captivating evening of live theatre.

Rating: 4 E’s

Isaac’s Eye continues through March 11, 2017 in production by Custom Made Theatre Company at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photo Credits: Jay Yamada

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