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Sir Isaac Newton wonderfully unmasked at convergence-continuum

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

One of the major issues in watching a historidrama is figuring out what is real, what is fiction, and what is fantasy. This is especially the case in Lucas Hnath’s ISAAC’S EYE, now on stage at convergence-continuum. Between the laughs and mumbles of “I didn’t know that,” “wow,” and, “no way,” it’s easy to get lost in intrapersonal mumblings.

Before probing into Lucas Hnath’s play, there must be an understanding of what is meant by “scientific inquiry.” The process starts with the development of a hypothesis which is a guess at what might be. An experiment is carried out and a determination of validity is made. Before being universally accepted as “fact” the experiment has to be replicated by other experts in the field. If it can’t, it is not accepted by the scientific community.

In the early days of research, self-proclaimed “scientists” often came to conclusions with no controlled experimentation and lots of intuition. Having a vivid imagination, and thoroughly convinced that his ideas were the direct messages from “God,” young Isaac Newton perceived “scientific” theories.

Hnath’s play is filled with “information” about Sir Isaac Newton. Some of it may well be true, other narrations and statements are of questionable validity. In fact, one may wonder if any of Hnath’s tale is valid. But, in the end, that matters little, as the audience gets swept up in the mystery and the humor and takes it all in.

The play, developed in conversational twenty-first century language, tells a seventeenth century tale. We are exposed to the height-challenged boyish Newton in his twenties before he became “Sir Isaac.” Yes, before he was credited with developing the theory of gravitation and the laws of motion.

The tale centers on Newton’s relationship with Catherine, a woman five years his elder, with whom he has had a life-long relationship. Was there really a Catherine in his life? We also are involved in an episode between Newton and Robert Hooke, curator of Experiments at the Royal Society. Yes, the Robert Hooke of the “Hooke Law of Elasticity.” But, was he really part of Newton’s life?

As the tale goes, Newton wants to get into the Royal Society. Hooke is his latchkey for entrance. If Newton can be convinced that Isaac’s theory of light particles is true, he’s in. If not, he remains a dreamer on the outside. Questions abound. Did Newton really stick a needle in his eye and prove the theory? Will the blackmail that Newton has on Hooke be used to accomplish his goal? What is Catherine’s role in all this? Is all this truth or fantasy?

This is a cleverly written play filled with lots of meta-theatrical devices. The language is filled with wit, humor and tension. The tale is filled with “facts” and modern slang. A well-conceived narrator keeps us apprised of the real versus the “it could be” or “it definitely is fantasy,” or “this is departing from the written record.”

We know for sure that Newton’s hair turned white at an early age, he invented calculus about the same time as a German did, and he did threaten to kill his parents and set their house on fire. Hooke did discover combustion, petrifaction, the basic theories of mechanical engineering, and did experiments in which he made the lungs of dogs explode. And then there is the other “stuff.”

The con-con production is cleverly staged by director Clyde Simon, with an emphasis on the humorous. He well-paces the show, which keeps the audience’s attention throughout.

The cast is wonderful. Jonathan Wilhelm is emphatic as the narrator, and does a fun side-track as a man dying of the plague. (Remember this is 1765-66, when death stalked England.) Wilhelm, writes everything we need to know in a meticulous handwriting on a series of blackboards, giving us a school room lesson of authenticity.

Bobby Coyne is a cherubic Newton. He has the boyish charm, the uncontrolled enthusiasm, and the air of believability that twists us around his little pinky, and makes us believe. He is the little kid who tells an obvious lie, but looks at you with innocent eyes and as says, “But it could be,” and you just have to believe him. This is an endearing performance.

Robert Hooke creates a convincing and smarmy Robert Branch, a sexaholic, pedophile and a brilliant scientist.

Amy Bistok Bunche lives the role of Catherine, the only character who seems like a reasonably mentally healthy person.

CJ Pierce’s lighting design effectively leads the audience through the actions.

Viewer alert: The scientific uninformed need fear not, everything that is the least bit abstract is explained in plain English.

Capsule Judgement: ISAAC’S EYE is one of those productions that if you don’t see it, you’ll be missing a very special theatrical experience. Good job con-con!

ISAAC’S EYE runs through April 11 at 8 pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. For information and reservations call 216-687-0074.