Fort Worth — If Newton’s apple falls in the woods, why should we care? Wouldn’t it be more entertaining…if it flew off into space? If history is up for re-write, and facts seem few and far between, how can gravity expect to hold its gravitas? Playwright Lucas Hnath spins a partly true—but mostly not—yarn about the rivalry between 16th-century science icon Isaac Newton and his bête noire Robert Hooke in Isaac’s Eye, the 2016 season opener for Amphibian Stage Productions. Director Mary Catherine Burke and an energized and compelling cast work the material for all it’s worth, but though Hnath’s imagined story has a few vibrantly comic turns, it isn’t all that original. This is the familiar story of a young man desperate for fame, an older man trying to hang onto it—and what happens when their egos come crashing together.
Isaac’s Eye, done in modern-day casual Friday dress (button-downs, khakis and leggings curated by designer Bree Moore), is hyper-aware of its own pretending. Except for the few facts chalked on an onstage blackboard, says an onstage narrator (Patrick Bynane), the rest is made up, a tale full of the “ether” that Newton (erroneously) saw filling the universe. The lies, we’re told, are for our own good: they will help us “see things” we otherwise might miss.
To be sure, some of this is fun. There’s more than a bit of Slightly Drunk History here, blended with a snifter of The Social Network’s Asberger-ish portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg. Twenty-something boy genius Newton (Michael Linden) writes the famous scientist Hooke (Greg Holt), asking him to sponsor his immediate entry into the Royal Society. (Little known today, Robert Hooke was a prolific inventor of the time, and beat Newton by a decade with his early description of the motion of planets.)
Newton wants a spot in “the best of the best club,” he says—no matter that his career is barely underway, his theories untested. Hooke ignores the first few letters, but jerks to attention when he realizes Newton’s work on light theory and gravitation overlaps his own…and might be ahead of it, in fact. He’d better give this boy a visit.
The rest of it, really, is all the sorting out of that premise. Will Hooke find a way to get Isaac off his scientific turf? Will Isaac find some leverage (aka dirt) that might force Hooke to help him? And will either one of them show a convincing interest in “the girl” of the story, apothecary’s daughter Catherine (played with plenty of snap—and fine-tuned exasperation—by Ashlee Bashore), who keeps believing, against all scientific evidence, that Newton might be husband material?
Bynane, who heads the TWU drama program, is delightful as our “framing” narrator—doubling as a philosophical plague victim named Sam who’d rather not become an experiment for Hooke, thank you. Holt smiles unblinkingly as his Hooke plots to thwart Newton’s career. The man is a science machine: coming across poor Sam on the road, Hooke offers to help him find shelter—if Sam will donate a few “pieces” of his disease-riddled body for later research. Hooke’s genial expression never changes. The guy’s dying anyway—why not take the chance to advance science?
And yet, we wonder if we don’t like Hooke a bit better than Newton himself—who seems like a happy naïf at first, but reveals himself as something less than entirely human. Newton’s body is in motion like one of his planets: unstoppable, relentless, unaware of the human life twirling through space with him, reaching out to cling to his surface. Linden’s portrayal is oddly charming, funny and a bit frightening in one. Newton chirps a quiet “yay” each time he gets what he wants, yet his bland expression, a small smile without particular joy, remains even throughout. He toys briefly with settling down with Catherine, but we know he literally can’t mean it, even as the words come out of his mouth. The ether of cosmic human connectivity simply isn’t in him.
Seancolin Hankins’ diagonal metal-and-wood set design anchors the action in a nowhere filled with equations and shapes, scrawled across the walls, marching down the chalkboards. Panels slip and slide, and characters swirl in and around them, adding action to the word-centricity onstage. And always, at center, we are kept aware of a small, gleaming shaft of metal—the needle Isaac Newton is said to have put into his own eye, to see if it would change his perception of color.
Unlike Hnath’s script, the ever-present needle makes its point with swift economy: science is obsession, and obsession will (probably, mostly, likely) trump humanity and love, then and now.