The second best reason to rush to see Theatre Nova’s world premiere of “Irrational” is that, when it goes to New York and wins a Tony, you can tell your snobby Broadway friends that you saw it here first. But the very best reason to see “Irrational” is that it is among that rarest and most precious of all theatrical gems—an all-new musical comedy that actually feels, looks and sounds all-new. This play does for Pythagoras and the early Greek philosophers what “Hamilton” did for our founding fathers, by making the lessons of history come alive. More importantly, it leaves us with a relevant message about the metrics of truth—one we can readily apply to today’s political turmoil. Best of all, it’s so very entertaining that you’ll want to see it again, right away.
The music is eclectic, beautiful, hilarious, catchy and plot-relevant—the harmonies actually demonstrate Pythagoras’s discovery of how various ratios (e.g., the length of a plucked string) are expressed melodically. And the clever lyrics and brilliant book not only bring dimension (literally) to the Pythagorean Theorem we all learned in school, but help us grasp the organic ubiquity of The Golden Ratio. Ann Arbor’s David Wells (playwright) and R. MacKenzie Lewis (composer) have structured this show with all the architectural precision and attention to proportion that makes the Parthenon sublime. Carla Milarch, who has been developing the production with the authors for years (dating back to Performance Network Theatre days), directs an impressive and inventive cast.
“The waiting has truly been the hardest part of our journey,” Milarch says. “With a show this good, you just want to start diving in creatively, but we’ve had to be very patient in getting it just right. Ultimately, I think the multiple postponements have led us through a deeper, richer process, with more time to ponder and think about the characters and the story. I’ve had these songs running through my head for two years now!”
The story is placed in ancient Greece, but the costumes, language and sensibility are pure 1980’s NYC. The music swings across generations of favorite forms – rock, pop, funk, rap and ballads – a breadth that reflects Lewis’s own interests.
The play opens with three members of the chorus singing in marvelous harmony and hunched together like Macbeth’s Weird sisters. In fact, it is our three chorus members (Anna Marck, Emily Manuell and Esther Jetzen) engaged in the classic street con—3-card Monte. As they warn us to watch their hands and not the cards, we are clued-in right up front that this is a play about con artists, truth, and what happens when we lie to ourselves.
The chorus members double as loyal followers of Pythagoras— boy genius, philosopher, mathematician, musician and cult leader. Elliot Styles plays Pythagoras with all the smugness of someone who holds the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. He backs this up with serious vocal vibes – especially on such challenging numbers as “The Most Insanely Perfect Thing” and hilarious rock-outs like “Big Boy Pants.”
His nemesis is the loveable con-man Hippasus, played by Nova Theatre favorite Sebastian Gerstner. His code eschews direct lies – he simply leads people to believe what they already want to believe. Hippasus makes quick plans to woo and wed the wealthy Eloris (Tara Tomcsik) but her father requires him to be a member of an elite social circle. With some help from his new-found friend and self-avowed math geek, Damascus (Matthew Pecek), Hippasus is accepted into the Pythagorean school as a renowned architect. Both Pythagoras and Hippasus seem to recognize a bit of the confidence huckster in each other, but they both play along, waiting to see what develops.
Hippasus’ plans all seem to be falling into place, until he finds himself falling for Theodousa, a purported member of the cult but also an aspiring con artist. She has discovered a proof that pulls the rug out from under the Pythagoreans’ core belief —that the uncontested beauty of all things can, without exception, be described as a perfect ratio. The discovery of ir-RATIO-nal numbers (the square-root of two, Pi, the Fibonacci sequence) puts the lie to Pythagoras’s preaching.
Trust us here—your enjoyment of this play does not rely on your understanding of mathematical theory. However, you will feel smarter when you leave. And there are many mind-blowing moments. Pecek and Tomcsik are surprisingly touching in the duo “Nothing at All” – a musical pun on the mathematical meaning of Zero and its emotional equivalent. You will laugh through the entire production number led by Elliot Styles, “This is Me Not Caring.” But the hottest numbers are those between Gerstner and Brett – their vocal paring and physical electricity would hold up in any Broadway venue. Seeing them in the intimate Yellow Barn performance space is incredible.
Of course, this performance space is not without its challenges, and it is always fun to see how the set designer will deal with the supporting pole that skewers the space. Theatre Nova’s Producing Director Daniel C. Walker, who handles both scenic design and lighting, has come up with a stage platform that, on first glance, looks like a post-modern nod at Iconic columns. We quickly realize, however, that this platform swings around the permanent column and not only provides a versatile staging area, but, more subtly, describes the geometrical relationship between the radius of a circle and its total area. Oh, those whacky Pi metaphors!
Composer R. MacKenzie Lewis plays keyboard for the musical track, supported by Jack Maddox (Keys II), Mike Harrington and Jeff Prince on guitar, Michael Rais on bass and Billy Harrington and Jon Taylor on drums. Call Schwartz fills out the design team as costumer. Melissa Freilich handles fight choreography. And Stephanie Blohm is the Resident Stage Manager.
You have no excuse not to see this astounding production; Theatre Nova has marked all tickets for all performances as pay-what-you-can, with a suggested donation of $20. Note: if you can afford more than that, pay a little extra and send someone else to the Yellow Barn, 410 W. Huron,in Ann Arbor. “Irrational” runs through May 15 with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 2 p.m.
Phone the box office at (734)-635-8450 or purchase tickets online here. For more information, visit the Theatre Nova website or Facebook page.