For the opening of its 15th season, Second Thought Theatre wants audiences to use its head to enter the mysterious world of "Incognito," Nick Payne's play about the most wondrous human organ: the brain.
"In most of his plays, he has a unifying theme. He seems to be writing about how the human experience intersects with science in strange ways," Alex Organ, the theater's artistic director and play's director, said about Payne's writing priorities. "Here in 'Incognito,' if there's a central theme, it is the human mind, the fragility of the human brain."
The show, now playing through Feb. 23 at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Campus in Dallas, weaves together three storylines with four actors playing 21 characters. One storyline is based on Thomas Harvey's theft of Albert Einstein's brain in 1955. Harvey carved the brain into 240 pieces and preserved it for study, against Einstein's final wishes.
"There was a hope back them in the 50s that we would be able to cut it open, look into it and be able to say, 'Ah, see how it is different here? That's genius. That's what genius looks like,'" Organ said.
Another storyline is inspired by the medical condition of Henry Molaison, known in the medical community as H.M., who had a lobectomy to cure his epilepsy. The surgery left him unable to form new memories. The third storyline is fictional, tracing a neuropsychologist’s first lesbian relationship.
The brain, in all its capacities, is the play's central character.
"It all centers around the brain as a physical object that can be stolen and as a physiological part of our existence," Organ said. "It is the thing that has set us apart from the rest of the species, it has allowed us to build civilizations, it has allowed us to map the stars and do all of these unbelievable things, but at the same time, it is really just a 2.5 pound lump of flesh that is extremely vulnerable, that the slightest thing can knock it off kilter and destroy the mind."
Like Payne's critically acclaimed plays, "Constellations" and "Elegy," Payne uses science as a dramatic device without making it sound clinical.
"These are all deeply, deeply human stories. He's a clever and gifted enough writer that creates pathos for the people very quickly and we become invested in the human stories immediately. They all just happen to be dealing with the brain," Organ said.
Payne's structure for the play presents a challenge for both audiences and the cast. "He uses plays as puzzles to be solved by the audience," Organ said.
A scene from the first storyline is followed by a scene from the second storyline which is followed by a scene from the third storyline. That pattern is repeated throughout the play. In the script, each storyline has its own font style to visually guide the actors through the play.
There are no breaks between the scenes, no costume changes, and the actors must change characters seamlessly, even changing dialects. "That means we have the burden of figuring out how to communicate to an audience in an instant with just your body and your voice that you are a completely different person," Organ said.
Organ met with actors individually to discuss their multiple characters' trajectories. In rehearsals, the company developed a physical vocabulary and learned to consistently repeat it. With the cast's detailed work, Organ is confident the audience will be able to recognize the various storyline’s connective tissue and solve Payne's dramatic puzzle.
"Incognito" is an ambitious start for Second Thought Theatre's 15th season, an artistic challenge Organ believes the theater is ready to tackle. "Fifteen years is no small thing," Organ said. "We feel like we're in a healthy place. We have experienced growth pretty consistently for the last five years."
In addition to the season opener, the theater's season includes "Lela & Co" by Cordelia Lynn (April 3-27), a double feature production of Caryl Churchill's "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You" and "Here We Go" (June 5 – 29) and "What We Were" by Blake Hackler (August 28 – September 21).
"What We Were" is the theater's first co-production with Circle Theatre in Fort Worth and the 2019 season is the third season the company has produced a world premiere play by Hackler. "I think this is his best play. I think it is his most mature work, his leanest, most direct and it may be his most personal work," Organ said.
Working with Hackler has positioned Second Thought Theatre for future artistic projects. "Now what I'm excited about is take what I've learned in developing these plays with Blake and now move on to other voices and work with other writers who are trying to get their work produced," Organ said. "Look for that in 2020."