Regional Reviews: Las Vegas
Happily, the professional theatremakers at A Public Fit are up to the challenge, this time in association with the Cockroach Theatre Company. Under the dynamic duo of Ann-Marie Pereth and Joseph Kucan, Incognito is directed to perfection. And several of the performers are giving master classes in the mysterious art of acting. Book your tickets now, as word of mouth is likely to lead to sold-out houses for the rest of the run.
Payne's play is based in part on real events. Pathologist Thomas Harvey, who performed Albert Einstein's autopsy, really did steal the scientist's brain for the ostensible purpose of performing research. After dissecting it and mounting thin slices onto slides, he kept the remaining pieces in jars of formaldehyde, sometimes stored in the trunk of his car. Decades later, his life and career in tatters, he had yet to publish any findings, although he did hand out pickled slices like souvenirs.
A second true story is that of Henry Molaison (called Henry Maison here), the 27-year-old epileptic who underwent an experimental lobotomy in 1953 that destroyed his brain's ability to form new memories. As a result, his only memories were of events that predated his surgery. Yet he was still able to develop new motor skills through repetition, even though he could not remember having practiced them from one day to the next. He was a willing research subject, and remained institutionalized until his death in 2008.
Another thread that winds its way through the plot is based on Albert Einstein's neglect of his family in the name of science, rumors of his extramarital affairs, and the possibility of an illegitimate child.
Payne interweaves these tales with an additional plot devicethe story of Martha, a neuropsychologist who jeopardizes her new relationship with a younger woman, Patricia, by conveniently failing to mention that she once was married and has a grown son. Even as she is forced to admit this deceit to her lover, Martha finds herself more and more disturbed by the dysfunctional behavior of others, including her own clients.
The overall theme is the relationship of mind, memory, and how we define ourselves. As one character observes of Henry's plight: "If you can't remember who you are, then you're not really anyone."
Presenting all of this to an audience risks information overload, or even flat-out confusion. Yet Pereth and Kucan, together with their talented cast, keep the characters distinct and the storytelling crisp. A signature of Pereth and Kucan's directorial style is their marvelous instinct for timing, which they are able to share with their actors. This also brings out the humor in the scriptdespite the serious subject matter, Incognito is quite a funny play.
Erik Amblad is spectacular in his multiple roles, including the obsessive Thomas Harvey, two of the research doctors who work with Henry, and several deeply disturbed patients. His shifts between characters are subtle but effectivedifferent accents or vocal patterns, and slight changes in posture or facial expression. And each transition is instantaneous, like switching a lightbulb off and on.
Marcus Weiss is equally strong, although he is able to devote more stage time to one of his six rolesHenry, who is by far the most sympathetic character in the play. Weiss's prodigious talent is fully on display as he depicts the subtle changes in Henry from age 27 to age 82. Payne conveys Henry's aging through his gradual intellectual and emotional acceptance of his bizarre situation. To this, Weiss adds a slow but steady physical transformation as the years take their toll on Henry's body.
Payne's female characters are less fully realized than the men. Despite this, Tina Rice nicely distinguishes her roles; she is especially convincing as Thomas Harvey's flustered and bewildered wife Eloise, and as the troubled neuropsychologist Martha. One of the evening's funniest scenes is Martha's bar fight with sleazy lawyer Greg (Marcus Weiss), who is possessed with wandering hands and some unwelcome innuendo about Patricia.
Among this seasoned group of performers, Jasmine Kojouri is noticeably less experienced, but she does a capable job playing several of the younger characters. She is especially convincing as Henry's fiancée Margaret, conveying not only her devotion but also her youthful impatience at Henry's inability to get better. If Kojouri is less successful as Martha's lover Patricia, one reason is that the role itself is underwritten. To her credit, Kojouri's dry delivery is effective in bringing out the humor in their scenes. And her interpretation may deepen later in the run.
The precision of this ensemble is remarkable. As one scene ends and another begins, as a group they instantaneously change from one character to another, as though a silent bell has rung. Such synchronization comes about only through intense rehearsal and concentration.
The design work is understated but effective. Ellen Bone's subtle lighting changes help to punctuate each change of scene. The opening soundscape, by sound designers The Dog & Pony Show, is a distant babble of children's voices, suggestive of unconscious memories. Scenic designer Yale Yeandel gives us a bare stage furnished only with four wooden chairsthat is, until we look up. Suspended from the ceiling is a cloud of metallic grey mobiles looking like yesterday's flip phonessymbolizing, perhaps, the mysterious grey matter of our communication pathways.
Incognito, through December 16, 2018, at the Art Square Theatre, 1025 S. 1st St., Las Vegas NV. Performance times are Thursdays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 2 pm; Friday, Dec. 14 at 7:30 pm; and Saturday, Dec. 15 at 2 pm. For tickets ($30 general admission; $25 for students, seniors, and military) and further information, visit www.apublicfit.org.