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THEATRE REVIEW: Shakespeare & Co.’s ‘Heisenberg’ has clarity and finesse

This is a very odd play based on a very curious concept and the ultimate scene is one in which changes and modifications of reality come glaringly across the stage leaving only the wonder of how it all happened lying bare naked on the floor.

Heisenberg
By Simon Stephens
Directed by Tina Packer

“The truth about me … and who I am.”

Tamara Hickey as Georgie in the Shakespeare & Company production of ‘Heisenberg.’ Photo: Daniel Rader

Werner Heisenberg was a theoretical physicist renowned for his uncertainty principle, which roughly states that the most we can hope for is to calculate probabilities for where things are and how they will behave, that there is a fuzziness in nature, a fundamental limit to what we can know about the behavior of quantum particles and, therefore, the smallest scales of nature. This principle, one of the most misunderstood concepts in the world, is at the base of the play named for him by English playwright Simon Stephens, now running on the main stage at the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts.

One way to think about the uncertainty principle is as an extension of how we see and measure things in our everyday world. In this play, Alex Priest, a 75-year-old London butcher, and Georgie Burns, a New Jersey girl of 42 with a penchant for lies and deception, meet in a train station and strike up an uneasy acquaintance that should most likely lead to nowhere. Six weeks later, it has led them to Hackensack, New Jersey, on a wild goose chase that ends with an unlikely new beginning for both of them. Uncertainty principle magnified: it just shouldn’t have happened; nothing logical has led up to the point where this play ends. Confusion reigns on the road to a happy ending. Or does it? And is it? Perhaps, in 140 years, someone will write “Heisenberg, Part Two” and enlighten us, for this show, let’s call it “Heisenberg (theoretical), Part One,” hosts a delirium of door slams echoing and re-echoing Nora’s actions in “A Doll’s House”

Tamara Hickey gets to portray a manic female on a hectic mission for self-aggrandizement and personal satisfaction. She laughs too often and too hard to be believed. She strikes a frantic pose, then another. She comes on strong to a stranger and physically dominates him within moments of introducing herself by apologizing for a foolish act: kissing him on the back of his neck. A stranger. She tells him why she did it, later tells him that was a lie, later tells him she … well, why spoil this outrageous comedy of manners based on a theory that nothing is predictable?

Malcolm Ingram as Alex in the Shakespeare & Company production of ‘Heisenberg.’ Photo: Daniel Rader

Hickey has boundless energy in her portrayal of Georgie. She rattles her way through honesty and dishonesty as though they were constant warring neighbors she had a mission to mollify. She is, frankly, a scary person, a dominatrix without chains, a sexual rabbit without a satisfactory carrot to distract her. She tosses her hair, opens her legs, closes her eyes but never her mouth, which constantly spews words and words and more words. As bizarre as Georgie is, she is also impossible to ignore, attractive in the most awful way and, for a 75-year-old male spinster, an unforgettable experience even when nothing actually happens between them.

Malcom Ingram, one of Shakespeare & Company’s most reliable actors, brings a quiet calm to Alex Priest, London butcher, an educated man with a passion for music of all sorts, unmarried, without family and with a penchant for sudden bursts of emotion. Not an innocent, not a male virgin, he is, nonetheless, an innocent where someone like Georgie is concerned and she can easily mark him for exploitation if that is her goal. Like her, though, he is an unpredictable soul likely to spin out of control in the oddest ways for no reason at all. Ingram plays befuddled and baffled fool with equal strength to his controlled direction of an educated man. Like Georgie, but not like her at all, he can change with the impulses sent his way. But he also has, and Ingram plays this for all it’s worth, himself in check.

Admitting at one point that he enjoys doing a tango, he sets up a moment later in the show when he can show off a bit for Georgie, who has worked to surprise him with her own dancing abilities. This turning point in their relationship sets up a confusion of decisions on both their parts. Ingram surprises everyone with his grace and his hauteur. He is suddenly more than Georgie’s equal: he is her superior in every way. Or is he? How random are their choices after all?

Tamara Hickey as Georgie and Malcolm Ingram as Alex in the Shakespeare & Company production of ‘Heisenberg.’ Photo: Daniel Rader

This actor, with his slow and steady method of growing a character in front of our eyes, self-copulates and creates a new edition of Alex for each scene of the play. If we believed that Georgie lied to lead the way to the truth, then we must realize that Alex tells the truth only to lead to a fabrication of reality that may not hold together. He plays a man who has never been complete even though who and what he is has been well-defined and understandable. Ingram is a supreme master of the ambiguous and so the Heisenberg principle is well applied to the man, as well as to the woman, in this play.

Tina Packer has directed with clarity and finesse, with blatant actions leading to subtle strokes, the way a fine painter creates a scenic display of opposites in nature. Her set designer Juliana von Haubrich has supplied a subtle set that allows six locations to be unique utilizing the same stage pieces. The costumes designed by Charlotte Palmer-Lane are ideal for these characters and the onstage disrobing of those clothes works beautifully. Dan Kotlowitz’s lighting is mood-oriented and denies the realities of time and place, for the most part creating a visual world that is deeply personal to the two players. And equally subtle is the sound design by Amy Altadonna, who creates a whole world inside the heads of Alex and Georgie. Susan Dibble’s tango is divine.

This is a very odd play based on a very curious concept and the ultimate scene is one in which changes and modifications of reality come glaringly across the stage leaving only the wonder of how it all happened lying bare naked on the floor.I liked it a lot.

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Heisenberg plays on the Tina Packer Playhouse stage at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, Massachusetts, through Sunday, Sept. 2. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go toshakespeare.org or call the box office at (413) 637-3353.

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