Review: Isaac’s Eye (Unit 102 Actors Co.)

Toronto’s Unit 102 Actors Company presents a play about scientists Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke

In this city which is filled to the rafters with gifted theatre creators—from classical masters to brave experimenters—I truly cherish the Unit 102 Actors Company’s presence. They are dependable with consistently solid productions. The scripts are always hardy, filled with compelling characters and sturdy, honest performances. Isaac’s Eye, currently playing at The Assembly Theatre, is their latest gift to the theatre scene and it is a genuine treasure. 

Young Isaac Newton has ideas about the properties of light. He wants to get into the Royal Society so that his ideas will be appreciated and he can be immortalized. He wants to be great, terrified that he might end up ordinary like the farmers that surround him. Robert Hooke is an established scientist who also has ideas about light. And so they have a problem, Isaac and Robert.

What follows is a charming, funny and eventually harrowing battle of wits, full of moral and intellectual posturing. They intimidate, beguile and berate to convince each other—and, more importantly, themselves—of their own importance.

Lucas Hnath’s play is full of lofty ideas to unpack and suggests that the stories we tell about ourselves are just as important as the invariable facts of our lives. Right off, a narrator explains to us that there are elements in this story that are recorded and verifiable; those will be written in chalk along the walls of the set. Anything not written down, he tells us, may be dramatic fabrication. 

As the story of Issac and Robert unfolds, a history of fact and legacy builds up in chalk around them. These scribbles are cold, precise, and exist in stark contrast to the emotional, idiosyncratic messiness we relate to as the real life of these people. And, in reflecting on this, I imagined the facts of my existence, left behind when I die, will likely seem almost entirely unrelated to the actual experience of my life as I live it. 

As both the trustworthy narrator and a pathetic plague victim who becomes a gruesome test subject, Francis Melling is the least complex, but most appealing presence on stage. As narrator, he sets us at ease with a delivery that conveys both objective detachment from the story, but a genuine compassion for the people involved.

Christo Graham and Brandon Thomas both bring a great deal of charm to their portrayals of Isaac and Robert. What I appreciated most was that neither the script nor the actors feel the need to make these men likeable to be relatable. I cared about these men not because I found them noble or admirable, but because I recognized in their ego and cruelty my own abject nature.

Laura Vincent’s Catherine, Isaac’s potential fiancé, is the perfect antidote to the two men’s incessant bravado. She’s being used by them both and in similar ways. Issac and Robert take turns relying on her level-headedness, her compassion, her influential contacts and the information she has that could be used by each against the other. She knows it, and we know she knows it, though neither of the men seem to know just how aware she is. I found it deeply satisfying to listen to her warm voice of reason and emotional intelligence amidst such uncomfortable displays male entitlement and insecurity.

Adam Belanger’s directorial debut is a stunning achievement. The creaky lath walls and floor of the set are his design. These rough and weathered slats create a comforting yet potentially dangerous environment that feels inviting, but we are all too aware of the nails and splinters and hidden spaces that hold secrets.

My guest and I were particularly impressed by how convincingly they’ve pulled-off a disturbing physical effect towards the end. It’s a very small space in which we sat in the front row yet neither of us could quite figure out exactly how they achieved it. The squeamish be warned: as the play nears its finale, you’ll start to guess what’s in store, but you probably won’t be prepared for it.

Details:

  • Isaac’s Eye plays until October 20, 2018 at The Assembly Theatre (1479 Queen St. West)
  • Shows run Tuesday through Sunday at 8:00pm
  • Tickets are $30 for General Admission, $20 for arts workers, with limited Pay What You Can ad Half Price tickets available
  • Tickets can be purchased online at unit102actors.com

Photo of Christo Graham and Brandon Thomas by Adam Belanger

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