Theater Review: INCOGNITO (Son of Semele)

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by Tony Frankel on March 20, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


One of the brainiest plays since, well, British playwright Nick Payne’s other brainy play, Constellations, Incognito (2014) contains Payne’s usual assortment of short scenes and quantum physics-like, obfuscating construction. But I don’t buy it this time. And not because I don’t get it. (Although I don’t get it.) This is Payne showing off his intellectualism to the point that it’s so muddling we mistake our confusion with stupidity. This time, the subject isn’t the nature of romance, but the brain (although incurable brain cancer does come into play in Constellations). There are three basic “stories” here: One man’s botched brain surgery that affects his memory; Albert Einstein’s stolen brain; and a divorced neuroscientist who lies to her nascent lover. 4 actors play 21 roles in dozens and dozens of weirdly edited tiny scenes that bounce back and forth even as the play moves forward chronologically (and there’s repeating dialogue).

Not only is it grueling for us, but this grey matter is also way over the head of Son of Semele Ensemble. It’s bad enough the playwright manages to mistake science for meaning, of which there is little, but director Don Boughton is obviously daunted by the task of delineating scenes for us. These poor actors — although not as poor as the poor audience that has to watch these poor actors — have to switch accents (British, Mid-West, Jersey) and situations (you know, like epileptic seizures, murder, and lovemaking) at the drop of a hat. How do they do it? Moving tiny benches.

Some of the performers can handle the material better than others (this is where ensemble casting can be a detriment), but no one changes physicality; the massive task of memorization in a set order and remembering the proper placement for each “mark” is to be applauded, but some of the many relationships are difficult to follow and swallow. There is an outstanding piece of art upstage in Mark Kanieff’s set — all twisted, dark metal and fragments (I even saw a spider’s web in there) — but damned if it isn’t used.

What we end up with — besides one of the greatest endurance tests in my theater-going history — is a series of hit-and-run mini-episodes that turned my brain into roadkill.

photos courtesy of Son of Semele

Son of Semele Ensemble
Son of Semele Theater
3301 Beverly Blvd.
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 5; Tues at 7
ends on April 7, 2019
for tickets, visit Son of Semele

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