British playwright Nick Payne’s Incognito, now playing at Constellation Theatre Company, probes the vagaries and mysteries of the human brain, through the often fragmentary, nonlinear lens of short scenes involving 21 characters. The four members of the cast, Kari Ginsburg, Ixchel Hernández, Marcus Kyd, and Gerrard Alex Taylor, make convincing, frequently rapid, transitions among their characters by varying their accent, affect, and physicality.
More even than the script itself, Constellation’s physical production conveys a sense of the strange and fluctuating nature of human consciousness. Configured as rectangular space, with the audience on three sides, Nepheile Andonyadis’ set design features several white, translucent bench-like rectangular solids, which are lit from within in varying colors as the play proceeds. The colors reflect the feeling of scenes, for example glowing deep red in an area where a murder takes place.
Against the back wall of the set — decorated in shapes depicting swirling flocks of starlings or a rock face, depending on how you look at it — are four doorway-size nooks, also lit in various colors at different times. In Alberto Segarra’s subtle, complex, award-worthy lighting design, a forest canopy of bare light bulbs dangles from the ceiling over the playing area, the bulbs turning on and off in various combinations as the locations of scenes shift, sometimes in rippling movements.
The use of color in the lighting design put me in mind of brain-imaging work, in which different areas of the brain “light up” in response to stimuli or as different brain functions activate. The light bulbs can suggest the firing — perhaps sometimes the misfiring — of synapses, in neural networks that may go astray. Like the use of light and sound in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the lighting design in Incognito conveys what goes on in the mind of characters beyond what words can accomplish.
Payne’s script does not have a plot line in the conventional sense, but there are three main narrative threads, which at times overlap and intersect. One concerns Thomas Harvey (Kyd), a pathologist who, having conducted Albert Einstein’s autopsy, makes off with the physicist’s brain, believing that the slices of its physical structure, preserved in formaldehyde, will reveal the sources of the great man’s genius. With the brain in a cooler, stored in his basement or the trunk of his car, Harvey becomes reviled as a fool for basing the rest of his life on this more than quixotic quest.
Henry (Taylor) has a severe seizure disorder — a depiction of a grand mal seizure is a frightening moment in the show — who undergoes surgery that causes the total loss of short-term memory. He cannot remember what anyone says or meeting someone, including his adoring wife, Margaret (Hernández), for more than a few seconds and lives institutionalized, the subject of study by doctors (two different ones, both played by Kyd) for the remainder of his long life. His story is one of sadness and loss: he keeps expecting Margaret to greet him on the way to their honeymoon in Brighton.
Martha (Ginsburg), a middle-aged neuropsychologist, embarks on a relationship with Patricia, a younger lawyer (Hernández) while concealing her ex-husband and adult son from her. While intellectually interested in the functioning of the brain, she has little insight into her own psyche, self-medicating painful memories with alcohol, though she ultimately finds a source of who she is through one of the play’s surprising coincidences.
One of the delights of the play concerns the minor characters that the actors each play. Ginsburg is, among others, Harvey’s embittered wife, Einstein’s embittered daughter, and a thoroughly stoned Kansan. Taylor, stoned along with Ginsburg in the Kansas scene, plays an obnoxious lawyer, a manipulative writer, and Martha’s son. Besides Margaret and Patricia, Hernández is a seductive waitress and a researcher working with one of Henry’s doctors. Kyd is another type of amnesiac whom Martha interviews. Charting the connections among all the major and minor characters, many of which are not stated until near the end of the play, would require an elaborate diagram, not to mention a host of spoilers.
In addition to the major narrative threads in the play, there is an unstated, but very pervasive, thematic thread: giving up and letting go, whether concerning relationships or professional goals. At some point, the stories that people tell about themselves and others — the brain as a storytelling device is emphasized in the script — no longer hold.
Allison Arkell Stockman’s direction is crisp, with scene breaks often delineated by a stylized repositioning of actors and music cues in Sarah O’Halloran’s sound design. When not involved in a scene, actors often stand frozen in one of the upstage nooks or recline on an unlit set piece, as if in suspended animation. Stockman’s style for the actors favors big and bold over understatement. Other productions have divided the play into three sections — “Encoding,” “Storing,” and “Retrieving” — a distinction that Stockman avoids, not losing anything of value in the process.
There’s a long tradition of “memory plays,” of which The Glass Menagerie is a classic example. Their narrative is often of one character’s recollection of the events or characters in his or her life. Incognito is a memory play of a quite different sort, focusing on the loss or unreliability of memory, as the brain creates or deconstructs the narratives of people’s lives, or perhaps precludes a coherent narrative at all. It’s a play to which an audience needs to pay close attention, but which, in Constellation’s production, becomes a memorable experience.
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Incognito plays through March 12, 2023, presented by Constellation Theatre Company performing at CulturalDC’s Source Theatre, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington DC (between 14th and T). Purchase tickets ($20–$55) online.
First responders, active or retired military personnel, teachers, and students are eligible for
a 50% discount on regularly priced tickets. Visit ConstellationTheatre.org/special-offers for discount codes and more information.
The program for Incognito is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are mandatory for all patrons inside the theater. N95 and KN95 masks are preferred. Masks will be available at the theater. Constellation Theatre Company’s COVID-19 Safety Plan is here.