Top-flight ensemble acting drives Redtwist Theatre’s production of this brainy, fanciful comedy by Lucas Hnath, author of A Doll’s House, Part 2. Loosely inspired by historical fact, the play is a fictional account of the events leading up to the time Sir Isaac Newton poked a needle into his eye.
OK, it wasn’t quite as bad as that may sound. The object that Newton (not yet a “Sir”) used was a bodkin—a long, blunt sewing needle—and he didn’t actually stick it into his eye, but rather behind the eyeball, through the tear duct. He did it to prove a point—pun intended, sorry. As an aspiring scientist in mid-17th-century England, Newton was studying the nature of light and how we perceive it—and decided to experiment on himself.
Through 4/24: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Mon 4/11, 7:30 PM (understudy performance); Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, 773-728-7529, redtwisttheatre.org, $35-$40 ($30-$35 students and seniors).
But Hnath’s play isn’t the story of a noble genius selflessly putting his vision on the line for the sake of, well, his vision. In Isaac’s Eye, the 20-something Newton is desperate to win the attention of the intellectual elite of his time in order to gain admittance to the Royal Society, recently chartered by King Charles II as Britain’s national academy of sciences. Hnath’s Newton is brilliant, driven, bratty, needy, abrasive, insensitive, at once utterly confident and utterly insecure, relentless and ruthless in his pursuit of fame. He is, in short, a very recognizable and surprisingly contemporary figure—especially in director Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary’s engaging, intense, intimate staging, with modern-dress costumes smartly designed by Elizabeth Niemczyk and intriguing musical underscoring by sound designer Mike McShane.
First produced off-Broadway in 2013, Isaac’s Eye imagines an encounter between the unknown Newton and Robert Hooke, several years older than Newton and already a celebrity in scientific circles. In Hnath’s telling, Newton seeks Hooke’s endorsement for entry into the Royal Society, something that Hooke—who is also studying the nature of light—finds threatening. Fearing that Newton’s scientific inquiries may collide with his own, Hooke sets out to deflect his potential rival. Joshua Servantez as Newton and Michael Sherwin as Hooke make their characters’ shrewd power plays a fascinating tactical exercise. Brooke Reams plays Catherine Storer, a real-life friend and possible lover of Newton’s, who inserts herself into the men’s game of one-upmanship.
Guiding the audience through this situation is an everyman-type narrator, who annotates the action with verbal commentary, sometimes writing on a chalkboard to explain what is historical fact and what is the playwright’s invention. Brilliantly played by young Jackie Seijo, this storyteller doubles as a dying victim of the Great Plague of 1665-1666, upon whom Newton attempts to perform his eye-poking experiment before deciding to try it on himself.