On the heels of the West Coast debut of “Constellations” at the Geffen Playhouse three months ago in Los Angeles, another stellar Nick Payne-written play called “Incognito” has premiered in Southern California and will run through October 1st – this time at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura.
Like “Constellations,” the brain — through the lens of memory, science, time, and love — is examined at length in “Incognito,” which is faithfully directed by Indy Award-winner, Katharine Farmer. But, unlike “Constellations,” which dealt more with the permutations of possible outcomes involving a couple in the metaphysical sense, “Incognito” delves deeper into the concept of identity and who we are with respect to the interconnected tapestry of humanity, as represented by four actors who weave a trio of key stories (two of which are loosely based on real-life events) and play an astounding 21 characters in all.
The multi-pronged plot further touches on compelling themes relating to amnesia, free will, self-worth, acceptance, and even Albert Einstein. In doing so, it mostly explores three individuals and their trajectories: the non-fictional Thomas Harvey of Kansas, who, as a pathologist conducting Einstein’s autopsy, takes the genius’ brain, places it in his car trunk, and subsequently develops a lifelong obsession with it (played by Joseph Fuqua); Martha Murphy, a neuropsychologist living in London who struggles to connect with others (Betsy Zajko); and, an epileptic British pianist in Henry Maison – inspired by Henry Molaison, Patient H.M. — who sadly experiences chronic anterograde amnesia, or short-term memory loss (Mark Jacobson). Supplementing these three characters are two major supporting Brit roles – Margaret Thompson, Henry’s wonderfully loyal wife, and Patricia Thorn, Martha’s lesbian partner (both played by Claire Adams).
Fuqua, who is in his 30th production at the Rubicon, is absolutely riveting as Thomas. Fuqua channels Thomas’ one-track-minded preoccupation with Einstein’s brain by affecting a determined but blank stare behind his eyes. It’s a nice touch by Fuqua since Thomas is essentially self-unaware of how irrational his behavior is, given that those whom he interacts with, including his wife Elouise (Zajko), as well as reporter Michael Wolf of Harper’s Magazine (Jacobson), are able to plainly recognize that something is indeed wrong.
This comes to a head in a climactic scene years down the line, when Thomas belligerently argues with Wolf (whose real last name was Paterniti) about how ignominiously the former’s story comes across in the magazine. Here, just with subtle facial expressions utilized by Fuqua alone, we observe Thomas’ reason for living – to study Einstein’s brain – practically evaporate when Wolf argues that even if he misrepresented him in the article, it’s no worse than what Thomas (who had mysteriously never published his findings on the brain) has done by “lying to himself.” As such, we the audience profoundly realize why Thomas may have deluded himself and why he “couldn’t stop” his research – because Einstein’s brain had become so closely tied to his identity.
Additionally, Fuqua is captivating to watch as Anthony of Yorkshire, who suffers from a disorder called confabulation, whereby due to long-term associations being permanently lost, he is privy to only memories in the present time. Though not as severe as Henry’s condition, Anthony often asks his clinician, “Have I told you about Deborah?” Again, owing to the complexity of human nature, Fuqua conveys a subtle longing as Anthony, hinting that a part of his character’s brain may not be in full agreement with how he processes stimuli and information.
Betsy Zajko plays Anthony’s neuropsychologist, Martha Murphy, who is oddly envious of her patient’s ailment, and wonders how freeing it must be to be unfettered from a neurally chronicled past. Murphy cares deeply about Anthony, and is diligent about helping him, but similar to Thomas, her intelligence is not readily applied to understanding herself. Zajko splendidly emotes Murphy’s disconnectedness with not only her own self-concept, but in attempting to fulfill her human need of wanting to bond with another (Patricia Thorn) on an intimate level.
Zajko is also stellar as Elouise Harvey, particularly during a scene that calls for her character to stand her ground against her unfaithful husband. Zajko musters a fireball of energy within a moment’s notice, hurling it like a maelstrom across the stage in what is an impressive example of building momentum throughout a scene.
Furthermore, Mark Jacobson inhabits the role of Henry Maison, who is tragically and perpetually stuck in a narrow pocket of time just before his honeymoon with wife Margaret. “Sorry, I have trouble remembering things,”Henry admits, as he re-lives the same day over and over again, trying to recall the notes on his piano (composed for the play by legendary pianist, Roger Kellaway) even long after his spouse has passed away. Yet, we don’t think of Henry as any less human as a result of this because his adversity could be ours. Jacobson is so eerily accurate in his depiction that it is almost heartbreaking to watch, especially when he goes from proposing to his beloved, to suddenly becoming ensnared by a violent seizure. His performance evokes gasps from the audience, who are attentive and respectful as if they were seeing the real thing in front of them.
Not to mention, Jacobson is unflaggingly committed to each of the six disparate characters he plays, and is able to make the audience laugh right after they’ve witnessed something solemn – as both Freddy Myers, a flippant hippie, and Greg Barraclough, an inappropriately behaved lawyer.
Lastly, Claire Adams, as both Margaret and Patricia, provides the respective emotional stakes and resonance to Henry and Martha’s arcs. Adams’ Margaret is the exemplary wife, who is boundlessly supportive of her unwell husband, because that is simply the person she is. Likewise, Adams is very genuine in her reactions as Margaret, heart-rendingly responding with impeccable timing to her surroundings.
As Patricia, Adams is charismatic and intriguing as the ostensible panacea to Martha’s problems. Patricia tries to make the same-sex relationship work, but she is pushed away, and Adams’ portrayal makes it easy for us to identify with a situation we may have found ourselves in at one time or another.
Overall, bolstered by Farmer’s direction, “Incognito” is a brilliant piece of writing and theatre that fires up our imaginations, capitalizing on a bare stage with four chairs. The excellent lighting by Mike Billings aids us with the character transitions, as the four performers seamlessly go from one persona to the next — each one rife with their own distinct temperaments, dialects and emotional breadth — with nary a pause. It is a triumph of focus, forethought, follow-through, and finesse, as the actors become revolving puzzle pieces in a clockwork of curiosity. And, it’s no matter that there is really no set to speak of, or even a change of costume, because the truth of the matter is that, as their various characters, the actors are so believable that we imaginatively fill in the settings and connect the dots ourselves. It is a wondrous experience that we’ll remember for a long time because it entrusts us, the observers, with a very special responsibility.
For more information about “Incognito” at the Rubicon Theatre Company, please visit rubicontheatre.org