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|A CurtainUp Review
Hypatia or The Divine Algebra
by Les Gutman
For those of you who missed Rinne Groff's math play, The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem, my recent review linked below, Mac Wellman has scheduled something in the nature of a make-up class. It considers Hypatia (Sophia Fox-Long), the 5th Century mathematician, pagan philosopher and inventor considered so inherently dangerous that Christian monks found it necessary to drag her through the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, before dismembering and then burning her body.
Wellman's new play follows Hypatia's imaginary trajectory from that spectacle through 8th Century Byzantium and then on to the early 20th Century, when she wanders into Alexandria, Virginia and first lays eyes on a bicycle. With the wide-eyed innocence of a child, she trades her most valuable possession for the bike.
And what possession is that? A pot of gold, perhaps? An Egyptian relic? No. It's the number zero (the cipher), the "mark of emptiness."
Wellman has three cast members called narrators (Michael Cecchi, Jonathan Hova and Emily Vail), and another who is a newscaster (Brett Halsey). But don't be fooled; he has no plans to provide a strong narrative line. As fastidiously conceived by Bob McGrath, Hypatia is something to behold more than follow.
McGrath and his designers have indeed provided plenty to see and hear as Hypatia goes on her seventy minute time-tripping magic carpet ride. Performed almost entirely behind a scrim onto which a large array of Laurie Olinder's very fine projections are unleashed, McGrath has positioned his cast of fourteen on a spartan, multi-level set around Hypatia, who rests in a raised circle at center. It's a striking image, its focus shifting under Jane Cox's lights. Every once in a while, "someone sings a little song." (The songs were created by the cast, and a few of them are actually quite good.)
Hypatia is the daughter of Theon (Jeremy Proctor), the last head of the Museum at Alexandria, and is a friend of Orestes (Leopold Lowe), the Roman prefect of Alexandria who was the bitter enemy of the local patriarch, Cyril (Daniel Zippi). That, together with her ideas that threaten the church's teachings, makes her evil. These people and their contemporaries are portrayed in a random sampling of periods and postures. Theon: a linen-suited Southern gentleman; Orestes: a modern soldier; Cyril: well, I'm not sure quite what. There's also a vampy cabaret singer and a man in an afro wig, among others splendid characters. Hypatia transforms from what's best described as a belly dancer at the outset to a young woman in a shirt waist dress at the end. Costumes, also by Ms. Olinder, are terrific.
Hypatia was a follower of Plotinus, the founder of a branch of philosophy known as Neoplatonism. This struck me as an odd subject for Wellman, who is known as a virulent anti-classicist, until I discovered that Plotinus is known for his belief that "ultimate reality" is beyond the reach of language. What could be a more interesting subject for this "linguistic exorcist" (someone else's description of Wellman), whose signature is his irreverence toward the conventional employment of words? The cipher ("0""") is a presence that represents an absence, the period (".") is a point of reference.
For Hypatia, people beget numbers and numbers beget machines; we are all machines and there are machines within machines. McGrath's staging is itself a well-oiled machine, and the disciplined cast functions beautifully and frequently machine-like as its many parts. (All of this repetition is also typical Wellman.)
The play was developed under his direction at American Repertory Theatre's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. Much of the cast (including Ms. Fox-Long) is from that workshop, or from Ridge Theatre, of which McGrath is Artistic Director. The value of this ongoing collaboration is evident in the finished product.
Wellman is a poet playwright, a combination sufficiently rare today that we owe it to ourselves both to pay attention to it and to let it nurture us. There's no telling what Christian monks might do if they find him.
LINK TO REVIEW MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's review of The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem