A theatrical sudoku puzzle

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Incognito Photo credit: Son of Semele Ensemble

“Incognito” at the Son of Semele is a puzzle play.

Unlike a classical, linear play that begins with a fixed set of characters and then tells a story about them... (engaging the audience with the question “what’s going to happen next?), Nick Payne’s play engages an audience by asking them to figure out how all the pieces fit together. Four actors play a slew of different characters across a span of time and the game is to try and keep track of who’s who.

The quintessential character is Henry.  Something’s wrong with Henry. We see him greet his darling Martha, wondering where she’s been.  She tells him she’s been right there and then asks him to play the piano. He says he’s not sure he can.  She assures him, along with someone who might be a doctor, that - yes, he can. He plucks out a note or two then something happens.  He seems to forget everything and he greets his darling Martha, wondering where she’s been. Lather, rinse, repeat: we see a variation of this scene a half-dozen times.

The other characters we meet are an odd lot.  There’s a pathologist who, in the middle of performing an autopsy on Albert Einstein steals his brain.  There’s Martha, a clinical neuropsychologist who seems to be having her first relationship with a woman after a failed marriage. These snippets of information reveal themselves in short little scenes that are juxtaposed against one another.  There seem to be mysteries. There’s a lot of talk about relationships and fathers and the brain and it feels important.

You feel like you’re solving some sort of theatrical sudoko puzzle with characters drawn from an Oliver Sachs essay all thrown together by a lesser Tom Stoppard.  

It’s a jumble . . .  but you follow along hoping for some big reveal or some magical gestalt where everything comes together and you see how it all creates this grand tapestry.  Come on - this guy’s got Einstein’s brain in a jar in his trunk - surely that’s going to pay off, right?

Somewhere around an hour into this 90 minute show, my questions shifted from trying to figure out how it all fit together to “why do I care?”  I’d love to tell you the final third of the play answered that question but I can’t.

Despite a really lovely production from Son of Semele and some subtle and nuanced performances from the four actors who play all the roles, I wasn’t sure why these threads were woven together.  It’s not that there aren’t touching moments: there are. It’s not that there aren’t common ties between stories: if you work you’ll track them. It’s that the reward for doing that hard work isn’t clear.

If you’re someone who loves a puzzle and gets absolutely giddy in trans-historical plays or you’re fascinated by the patients that perplex Oliver Sachs - then “Incognito” is for you.  If not, then maybe leave this particular puzzle unsolved.

“Incognito” plays at Son of Semele through April 7th.