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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Payne's Incognito (2014), in its West Coast premiere at the Rubicon Theatre, is positively brain-drenched — and not just because one of its central characters is the man who stole Albert Einstein's brain. The playwright mixes together neuropsychologists, amnesiacs, psych researchers and would-be biographers with spurned spouses, hippies, waitresses to produce a story that is as insightful as it is intelligent, a think piece in every sense of the word.
Fair warning: you'll need your noggin in tip-top form to work through this one. Four actors play 21 roles, morphing between characters sometimes at lightning speed with barely even a light cue to signal a change.
The production runs 90 minutes and contains no scenery or costume changes. Performers Joseph Fuqua, Betsy Zajko, Mark Jacobson and Claire Adams are deft and versatile performers and Incognito makes them work quickly. Given the time jumps and the multiple characters, one could be lost without a scorecard. Thankfully, the Rubicon's Incognito program provides one.
Five twisty mobiles, possibly meant to represent neurons, dangle from the ceiling high above an otherwise bare stage. Journalist Michael Wolf (played by Jacobson), approaches Evelyn Einstein (Zajko), an estranged relative of the legendary physicist, with an offer to help her unlock a mystery that will help her learn who she is. Evelyn is hostile but intrigued enough to agree to meet him for dinner. And we're off.
Off to England, where, as a doctor (Fuqua) looks on, a young man named Henry (Jacobson again) delightedly greets his wife Margaret (Adams) with "Hello, my darling. Where have you been?" She replies "I've been right here, Henry." Less than a minute later, Henry looks at Margaret and repeats the phrase. He makes the same joke whenever he is asked how he slept the previous evening. The lobotomy that wiped out Henry's seizures has also left him without the ability to form new memories. His heartbroken wife is looking for something, &emdash; anything &emdash; to indicate her husband might improve, including the fact that he can be taught to play the piano.
Somewhere else in England, neuropsychologist Martha Murphy (Zajko) holds sessions with a Yorkshire historian Anthony (Fuqua) who, due to a brain disorder called confabulation, perseverates endlessly over memories of events that may never have happened. During her off=hours, the divorced Margaret tries to advance a budding relationship with Patricia, a fun-loving if foul-mouthed attorney (Adams). She's great with brain patients, but matters of the heart are trickier for Martha.
Martha's difficulties are peanuts compared to the issues of Thomas Harvey, the pathologist assigned to conduct the autopsy of Albert Einstein. The enterprising Harvey decides to take the dead professor's brain away and study it for his own research purposes. Fearing a scandal, Einstein's son Hans Albert (Jacobson) lets Harvey proceed, and the pathologist cuts the brain up into multiple segments and carries portions of it around in the trunk of his car. Harvey's wife Elouise (Zajko) is eventually gung-ho about her husband's unusual project, before realizing that Harvey is an obsessed, delusional nutcase and a philanderer to boot.
Thomas Harvey, the Einsteins, and Henry and Margaret are all based on real life characters. Payne has the historical and fictional characters intersecting in ways that are either historically consistent or dramatically interesting.
Though we're with them in short flashes, we grow to care deeply about several of these characters, especially Jacobson's childlike Henry and Adams so touchingly and tragically faithful as his wife.
Rubicon regular Fuqua does fine work with all of his characters, but particularly with Harvey, a simple man with a too-grand idea. Playing Martha and Evelyn Einstein, a grounded and often raw Zajko anchors the production.
The characters bear out Payne's contention that brain capacity and memory are inextricably linked to a person's identity. You may not, as one player notes, be anybody if you can't access your memories. On the other hand, a case can also be made that the severe amnesiacs and dementia sufferers like Henry and Anthony may have greater inner peace since they no longer have to deal with the worries and angst of what they can no longer remember.
Einstein does not appear in the play, but he is a looming presence. If his relatives are to be believed, one of history's greatest thinkers couldn't figure out how to be a father or companion. That his amazing brain ends up in a jar being spirited across the United States by a charlatan feels like a kind of poetic justice.
Thomas Harvey is fond of spouting, "Chance favors the prepared mind" as a kind of rallying cry for his crazy endeavors. The quote comes not from Einstein but from an 1854 lecture by Louis Pasteur who, after his death, managed to keep his brain inside his head. Of course, in Incognito, a "prepared mind" no matter how substantial, does not guarantee happiness or fortune. Think about it. Nick Payne would want you to.
Incognito also had a run in New York. To read Elyse Sommer's review go here
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Written by Nick Payne
Directed by Katharine Farmer
Cast: Joseph Fuqua, Betsy Zajko, Mark Jacobson and Claire Adams
Set/Lighting/Projections Design: Mike Billings
Costume Coordinator: Erica Mings
Sound Coordinator: Katharine Farmer
Original Music Composition "All My Life" by Roger Kellaway
Production Manager: Kelsey Sapp
Stage Manager: Jessie Vacchiano
Plays through October 1, 2017 at the Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura (805) 667-2900, rubicontheatre.org
Running time: One hour and twenty five with no intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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