Angles in America: “Irrational” is a hit number at Theatre Nova
ANN ARBOR, Mich.–“A musical about math?” Don’t you believe it. Irrational, which is making its world premier at Theatre Nova, should be reduced to such a bare description the same way Rent should be reduced to “a play just about AIDS.”
Irrational is an inventive, terrific idea that went from a blank piece of paper (or laptop screen) by co-creators David Wells and R. MacKenzie Lewis to a musical that I am willing to bet will travel to every college town in America, and well beyond.
The story opens in a mashed up setting of Croton, Ancient Greece meets New York City circa 1980. This should be distinctly understood at the beginning ( I overlooked it in the program), or else the audience might be confused for about the first 15 minutes. This setting device works extremely well to keep a story rooted in Ancient Greece feeling modern and relevant–not unlike when we see Shakespeare plays re-set in modern times with modern costumes and sets.
Irrational is based on events and ideas ascribed to Pythagoras (Elliott Styles), chiefly the Pythagorean Theorem, which states that in a right-angled triangle the area of the square on the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle)is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. The mathematical equation looks like this: a2+b2=c2
But Pythagoras was not just a historical figure. He inspired a movement of Pythagoreans who sought to find similar harmonic ratios in everything. It wasn’t just math, but philosophy. Indeed, Pythagoras would inspire and influence philosophers for centuries including Plato and Aristotle.
A this point, it is worth noting that while math puts off many people, including me, the story of Irrational is easily accessible and very compelling. And while the story sent me to the Internet at intermission to read up on historic characters I have never really considered, that was a good thing since I find the story fascinating and want to read more.
Into Pythagoras’s sphere of god-like adoration enters Hippasus (Sebastian Gerstner), a slippery love-em and leave-em bounder who passes himself off as an architect (paging George Costanza from Seinfeld), and ultimately challenges Pythagoras’s whole school of thinking and philisophical framework by taking up and espousing the idea–with the help of Theodousa (Emily Brett), Damascus (Matthew Pecek) and Eloris (Tara Tomscik)–that the square-root of 2 is an irrational number. Gasp!
This was the stuff of debate and dialogue in Ancient Greece. And while we would like to think that the Greeks were far more civilized than we are today, or we were at the time of the Salem witch trials, The Scopes Trial or Joe McCarthy’s blacklists, the story goes that Hippasus was drowned (water-boarded?) for voicing Square-root-of-2-gate, and revealing how to construct a dodecahedron inside a sphere. The cad! The heretic! But at the time, this was apparently the equivalent of, say, proving that climate change and industry was combining to flood the East Coast of the U.S. and West coast of Europe in the forseeable future–live on Fox News. It was quite a thing.
The playwright and composer, and director Carla Milarch, do an excellent job of keeping the story accessible and compelling. In fact, the whole production has a kind of “math is fun” quality. The decision to set the story to music in the first place, was inspired. Not only does it help keep the potentially heavy sledding of the story breezy, but Pythagoras is credited with figuring out the connection between math and music. So, there’s that too.
Styles carries the Pythagoras role with great craft, channeling a bit of Jesus in Godspell and perhaps Marc Anthony, with a little of Joel Osteen, and conveys the cult of personality that we believe Pythagoras to have been. And his vocals ring through TheatreNova’s small space. Gerstner mixes Hippasus’ sly-dog personality, but with his other better side that can be vulnerable and caring about the truth. Brett’s vocals are delightful and her clever and knowingness as a foil to Pythagoras is handled just right.
The songs, 26 in all, work to advance the dialogue and story. Not all are long. Many utilize the three “Greek chorus” members (Anna Marck, Emily Manuell and Esther Jetzen) as 60s style MoTown back up singers whose presence is a constant source of support and comedic distraction. Some of the songs are great fun–“Mononymous” is about the people who can get away with having just one name, like Madonna, Cher, Aretha and, of course, Pythagoras. “Big Boy Pants” is funny and roots the story extremely well in contemporary language. “The Most Insanely Perfect Thing” establishes the magic of the Theorem, but, again, in language that makes it accessible to all; especially the younger audience members, but also their parents who are used to hearing their kids’ hyperbolic word choices.
A few of the songs miss a little. But this is a world premier. The show has been workshopped at Eastern Michigan University. But there is plenty of opportunity to keep tinkering on what should become a well-traveled, successful show. Given the theme and smart writing, it is easy to see this show eventually playing around the world.
Theatre Nova’s space is a thrust stage in a small area. Set and lighting designer Daniel C. Walker has a great knack for keeping the sets in this theatre simple, yet just right to support the material; in this case a graffiti-covered wall typical of New York City, but maybe a bit in Ancient Greece too. The play feels like it will do better in a Proscenium stage, or at least in a larger thrust space. But Theatre Nova has quickly become a gem, bringing new work like this to Michigan, so this is not a criticism, but rather an observation.
Yes, math can be fun, and Irrational shows that new oxygen can be pumped into a very old story to open minds, and make you think and laugh at the same time.