A Public Fit’s cerebral Incognito explores the most puzzling landscape of all, the human brain
As a staged reading of Incognito in July of last year reached its pinnacle scene, in which Henry Maison, a brain-disorder patient whose condition prevents him from forming new memories, plays a melody on the piano (per stage direction) “f---ing brilliantly,” Ann Marie Pereth, co-founder of local theater company A Public Fit, was moved to tears. “I found it incredibly moving in that way ... if we just find the right route or the right course, we could find a way around something that seems impossible.”
Matters of the brain — gray, white, and most everything in between — are at the center of British playwright Nick Payne’s cerebral puzzle, which A Public Fit will debut in a fully staged version on November 30. Incognito, which Pereth describes as a “sexy play about the brain,” is a profound exploration of the mind, partially through examining one of the greatest minds in history: Albert Einstein.
The play follows Thomas Harvey, the real-life pathologist who stole Einstein’s brain in 1955, then dedicated the rest of his years to studying it obsessively. Henry Molaison, a neurological patient who lost his short-term memory after an operation to cure his epilepsy, is the inspiration behind another central character. And Martha Murphy is a modern-day neuropsychologist who struggles to understand her own mind and relationships after a recent divorce. Though these characters exist in different times and circumstances, each is faced with a similar challenge: learning to navigate the mystery that is the human brain.
This unconventionally structured show features a cast of four (including Tina Rice, who won Best Actress at the Las Vegas Valley Theatre Awards for her performance in last year’s W;t) who together play 21 characters, both fictional and historical. Each character comes from a different region of Europe and the U.S., and live across time periods ranging from the 1920s to the present day.
Although the structure may seem perplexing, the seamless and instantaneous way in which each actor transforms into an entirely new character is well worth the whiplash, and easier to follow than one might think — a credit to both the writing and the exceptional acting. The Guardian says of Payne’s writing, “one of his great gifts is the ability to poignantly meld complicated philosophic and scientific tenets with simpler human struggles.”
If Incognito proves anything, it is that despite the immeasurable variance of the people who carry it, the human brain has a nearly equal capacity for great resilience and deep despair. With the holidays approaching, Incognito emerges as a story as hopeful as it is heartbreaking. “It’s important that we dig into these meaningful stories, but not just for the sake of being morbid or knowledgeable,” Pereth says. “The best kind of story ends with possibility for a new day.”
incognito presented by A Public Fit, November 30-December 16, 7:30p and 2p, $30 general, Art Square Theatre, 1025 First St., apublicfit.org