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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
You think you understand where the stage is. You think the play is only happening in front of you. Then an actor writes on the wall beside your head. Or he flips over an anonymous piece of wood in the corner, and you realize it has writing on the other side.
Suddenly, the entire room crackles to life. Every inch of the theatre buzzes with potential.
That's the visceral power of Isaac's Eye, now at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. A new play by Lucas Hnath, it imagines a turning point for Isaac Newton, when the young scientist must decide if he'll follow his ideas, his emotions, or his faith in God.
To make that story theatrical, Hnath plays fast and loose with facts. Characters speak with modern slang, for instance, and some of them never actually existed. However, they <i>tell us</i> when they're making things up, and when they tell us something true, something that actually happened in Newton's life, they write it on the wall with a piece of chalk.
Eventually, the theatre is covered with scribbled history. It becomes oddly thrilling, waiting for a character to grab the chalk or turn over a placard that reveals a message. By the final, emotional moments, the fictional drama on stage is surrounded by Newton's real life.
This technique is a natural evolution of Hnath's writing. "I had previously written a couple of plays about iconic figures or celebrities---Hilary and Bill Clinton, one about Anna Nicole Smith---where I would take one or two details of that person's life and then make up everything else," he says. "I started to have a debate with myself about whether or not that was right. [Having characters write facts on the walls] seemed to buy me a little more guilt-free passage to fictionalization."
Of course, ideas get more complicated when a play is actually staged. "We quickly realized in our first workshop that writing creates a sound," Hnath says. "We realized that we had to be strategic about where things actually get written and where we use other strategies for getting stuff on the walls." That's why some long passages are written in advance on large boards that get turned around with a flourish.
But even that decision raised new questions. Where do the boards sit? How often do they get used? The answers helped director Linsay Firman define her approach to the production. "A series of rules emerged that helped us guide our thinking," she says. "One thing is that we didn't want the revelations to become clever. We didn't want there to be lots of hiding places for the writing where things slid and moved. If you're really looking at the set, it's easy to see the black board on the floor, and there's a real pleasure in saying, 'Oh, this thing that I forgot about now has this incredible weight.'"
The rest of the production also assumes the audience will pay attention. We might hear that young Isaac has white hair, for instance, but he's played by a brown-haired actor. Firman says, "If it's said in the play, then you probably don't need to represent it. Your imagination needs to be at play."
And if our imaginations are engaged, then we might think about Isaac Newton in a new way. "I like to break expectations that a play is going to literally represent everything," says Hnath. "My sense is that when clichéd images get smashed, something exciting happens. And the audience probably has a stiff, uninteresting, two-dimensional image of Issac Newton. There's probably an apple involved in that image. And the whole objective of the play is to smash that image."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Gerry Goodstein