REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Nick Payne’s acclaimed, thought-provoking play Incognito made its debut at the Rubicon Theatre Company last weekend in a performance that is sure to have audiences scratching their heads while thinking about the ramifications of the converging storylines presented in the play. “Thinking” is indeed the operative word since the play concerns how we view our own identities and how fragile the concept of identity is.
Incognito is a trilogy of sorts, but instead of presenting the three stories one after the other, Payne decided to jumble them up, with stories and chronologies seemingly drawn from a hopper like ping-pong balls during a game of Bingo. The first story deals with famed scientist Albert Einstein. When Einstein died of an aneurysm in 1955, a pathologist named Thomas Stoltz Harvey performed the autopsy, but when he returned the body to Einstein’s family, one important organ was missing: Einstein’s brain. It was Harvey’s intention to conduct medical research on the tissues of the brain, with his findings to be published in prestigious medical journals. He cut up the brain into 240 pieces, storing them in the basement of his house. Occasionally, he would send pieces, sealed in Tupperware and formaldehyde, to curious neuroscientists from around the world. After forty years and three divorces, Harvey had nothing to show for his efforts; he was always “a year away” from publishing his research. Eventually, Harvey died, with the remains of Einstein’s brain going to the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
In the second story, also based in fact, a man known as Patient H. M. (whose real name was Henry Molaison) undergoes a lobotomy in order to relieve his epilepsy. Although the surgery is successful, H. M.’s short-term memory was severely damaged so that he can only live in the immediate present for periods of approximately thirty seconds before forgetting everything he had just said or done.
The third story is strictly fiction, focusing on Martha, a clinical neuropsychologist, who is grappling with her own sense of identity. While able to help her patients deal with their need for human connection, Martha has trouble with her own.
The three storylines feature 21 characters, who are played by four actors. The major characters are Thomas Harvey (Joseph Fuqua), Patient H. M. (Mark Jacobson), H. M.’s devoted but helpless wife (Claire Adams), and Martha, the neuropsychologist (Betsy Zajko). In addition to playing central characters in each of the storylines, the four actors also portray supporting and minor characters in the others, requiring them to constantly shift gears, changing attitudes, voices, and accents when each brief scene ends and seamlessly moves to the next. (There are no blackouts to separate the changing storylines; they are indicated through subtle lighting changes.)
With no sets, props, scenery, or even costume changes, this kind of performance is more challenging (and no doubt mentally exhausting) than most that actors might encounter on the stage. The irony of it is that the play’s main concern, that of identity, is something the actors have to deal with as well – as they constantly have to make mental switchbacks, like careening down Lombard Street in San Francisco.
Award-winning director Katharine Farmer is able to make these sudden transitions in storylines work seamlessly and fluidly. The audience is forced to rely on its own imagination to quickly comprehend and bring forth the identities of the quickly changing characters in their own minds, making the process hard work for all involved, but ultimately rewarding for those off stage as well as on. One of Einstein’s most profound quotations serves us well in understanding the nature of the wildly disjointed stories and characters being portrayed on the stage: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Joseph Fuqua is Rubicon’s resident everyman character actor, able to portray anyone from any era and do it convincingly. In the “Patient H. M.” story, he is Henry Molaison’s sympathetic doctor, who is frustrated when he can’t make headway in getting his patient to even remember series of numbers stated a few seconds before.
Betsy Zajko, a former producer for CBS and National Public Radio, plays Martha, the adopted child who is poised to embark on a lesbian relationship with a younger woman (Adams), whose own identity helps link this story with the other two. Adams, an Oak Park High graduate who has gone on to become a sterling performer after graduating from USC’s theater school, is heartbreaking as H. M.’s loving wife, who loyally cares for him while dealing with her own frustrations at not being able to have a normal marriage. Jacobson delivers a remarkable performance as the unfortunate H. M., who doesn’t even know he can play the piano, but constantly surprises himself when he does. To some in the story, H. M.’s unfortunate situation is to be envied – when you have no identity, you are not beholden to any fixed behaviors or attitudes; you are, in essence, freer than any human can be. But to others, like his wife, who know and love him, his quickly vanishing short-term memory is like experiencing a death and a rebirth every minute of every day.
It probably would take several viewings of this play (and a scorecard) to keep track of all of the characters and situations it entails, but if you only have one occasion to see it (and everyone should try to get up to Ventura to do so), it will fascinate and frustrate you, but above all, it will make you think.
Through his theory of relativity, Albert Einstein changed our concept of time. Incognito, through its own disjointed chronology and contexts, is a suitable homage to his ever present curiosity about our own intuitions and inspirations.
Incognito plays through October 1 at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. For dates (including several talkback sessions with the cast), see the VC On Stage Calendar.