by Lynn on October 10, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Assembly Theater, 1479 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Lucas Hnath

Directed and designed by Adam Belanger

Costumes by Jenni Lee Manis

Cast: Christo Graham

Francis Melling

Brandon Thomas

Laura Vincent

An early work of Lucas Hnath that has aspects of his better later work but does not have quite a solid centre.

The Story. Isaac Newton (Jan 4 2643-March 31, 1727) is desperate to get into the Royal Society to establish his reputation as a viable scientist. It’s early in his career and sends his many notes on his discoveries and experiments to Robert Hooke, the most noted scientist of his day and the president of the Royal Society. Hooke ignores him for the most part. Then they meet. Hooke was prodigious in his discoveries and theories in mathematics, architecture, physics, the use of the microscope, the coining of the word “cell”, work on gravity.

Newton too worked on gravity independently of Hooke and on light. Newton challenges Hooke’s discoveries and his comments on gravity and light. They spare over intellectual rights and the love of a woman. They trick each other to gain the upper hand. Newton does an experiment to prove that the eye sees light refracted into many colours with startling result.

The Production. Director Adam Belanger has also designed the set (he is a designer, this is his debut as a director) and on its own it’s impressive. The set is rustic. The walls are made of narrow wood slats. Sam (Francis Melling) is a scruffy, mournful character who narrates the work telling us about what is true and what is not. All truths are written in chalk on the slats. Sam itemizes the discoveries of Isaac Newton (Christo Graham) and Robert Hooke (Brandon Thomas). The problem is that while we can make out what is written as it’s also being spoken, we can’t easily read the writing on its own later. I think it’s a misstep to have the writing scrawled on the narrow slats.

Playwright Lucas Hnath has not written Isaac Newton as a confident scientist. He’s a bit of a bumbler and Christo Graham plays Isaac Newton as that—inarticulate, halting in his speech, who seems to spend a lot of time trying to bluff his way through an argument rather than presenting clear findings. This is interesting since Newton sent Hooke a lot of his experiments. When Hooke does appear, Brandon Thomas is dapper in a modern day stylish haircut, a well cut suit, tie and vest and a confidence of a man who has worked his way to the top.

When Hooke challenges Newton to prove a theory of how the eye refracts light into colours, director Adam Belanger and Christo Graham as Newton create a trick that I won’t dare reveal, but it’s a scene that will have you riveted to your seat, blinking. It’s interesting to see how each man tries to get the better of the other—Isaac knows of Hooke’s rather colourful private life; Hooke knows where Newton hides his written findings.

Comment. Lucas Hnath has only been producing plays since 2012. Isaac’s Eye is his third play, written in 2015. It shows the wild imagination of the playwright with an interest in moral issues—what will you do to gain notoriety and then hold on to it.

His most notable work to date is A Doll’s House, Part II, a terrific reimagining of Ibsen’s play 15 years later. Isaac’s Eye is the work of a writer finding his way. The centre doesn’t quite hold. I did think while watching it that Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke were like Mozart meeting Salieri. Mozart was this genius upstart, desperate for advancement and Salieri held the key. Similarly Newton looked to Hooke for advancement. The problem is that while we know who Isaac Newton is (and Hooke has disappeared for the most part into the mists of history) and we know of his accomplishments, his gifts are not obvious in the play. Hooke might find promise in Newton’s work, but we don’t see it in the play. That’s a problem.

Unit 102 Actors Co. Presents:

Opened: Sept. 29, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 20, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes approx.

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