When an audience enters a theatre expecting to see a staged play, it does more than physically walk in the door. An audience also enters into an unwritten contract by which, among other things, it agrees to maintain a suspension of disbelief. That is to say the audience willfully agrees to accept the fictional contents of the play as real so long as the audience is in the theatre.
At least that’s what usually happens. Sometimes, the playwright decides to futz up that once-sacred contract by announcing front and center that his play is a lie and that almost none of it is to be believed.
That is what Lucas Hnath wrote into his play “Isaac’s Eye,” and that is precisely the message given at the start of Students’ Stage’s production of it Thursday evening in the black box theatre in the H.P. Davidson Music Center. In fact, so much of the sort-of-biographical play is falsehood that the few truths could be picked out, one at a time, and projected onto a wall behind the actors. The projector was not hard at work, to say the least.
Isaac Newton, or at least some fantastical version of him, was portrayed in a most unflattering fashion — as an unforgiving egomaniac full of regret. He was a painful character to watch as he tried desperately to win recognition from the Royal Society, despite his unproven scientific theories. His dreams of fame bring him into direct contact, and soon conflict, with the well-established academic mind of Robert Hooke, a distinguished Society member. Hooke, perhaps more than Newton, suffers from a similar egomania and regretfulness, though his is sprinkled with disturbing doses of (true) sexual perversion and (not necessarily true) malice.
How appropriate, then, that these two miserable, yet brilliant men would enter a feud over whose name would live on for eternity as being synonymous with scientific discovery, a feud made all the more uncomfortable by the intentional claustrophobia of the blackbox theater. It isn’t that the actors needed more room — nearly all the action is confined to dramatic dialogue — but the tension visibly thickened as the wall was lit up with what was true and the floor filled with chalk diagrams often depicting what was false.
The performance was less about science than it was about finding some relief from the deep sense of loneliness and inadequacy the two main characters felt. Nathan Norris, the director of the show and a manager of Students’ Stage, thought some of the themes might be especially applicable for Cal Poly students.
“I want Cal Poly to start talking about how we balance our careers and our futures,” Norris said.
After all the hard work Newton and Hooke put into their careers and worrying constantly over their legacies, they didn’t know how to live their personal lives in a way that was truly fulfilling. In this script, neither one gets the girl, nor any real sense of satisfaction. No amount of scientific theory can cure emotional incompetence.
“Now the question is, ‘What do we do?’” Norris said. “We have to commit to our careers or the people we’ve (grown) with, and the fact that we really can’t do either one is ridiculous.”