RTC Presents Heisenberg

By Steven Libowitz   |   January 31, 2019
Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg makes its area debut at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura from January 30 to February 17

Tony Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) wrote Heisenberg a couple of years after TV’s Breaking Bad anti-hero Walter White stared down another major meth manufacturer in the Arizona desert and demanded that his rival say the criminal’s nickname that had made him the DEA’s fictional enemy No. 1: Heisenberg. “You’re goddam right,” White replied. 

No one utters the famed theoretical physicist’s name, much less in an ominous fashion, in Stephens’ play, which makes its area debut at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura January 30 to February 17. Rather, the playwright invokes the quantum mechanics pioneer’s uncertainty principle to illustrate the vagaries of human interaction in his two-character work, which follows the apparently random relationship between a free-spirited forty-something American living in London and an Irish-born butcher in his 70s. Lives grow chaotic, expectations and habits are upended, bonds form and fluctuate as Heisenberg employs humor and dramatic turns to dig deep into layers of everyday relationships in an exploration of what it is that defines and inhabits a human connection.

The play received rave reviews in 2015, including one in The New York Times that called it “One of the most emotionally complex and fulfilling plays to grace a New York stage… a probing work that considers the multiplicity of alternatives that could shape our lives at every moment. It resonates in your mind long after it’s over.” 

Portraying the oddball couple are RTC veterans Faline England and the Emmy Award-winning Joe Spano, with direction by Katharine Farmer, whose diverse turns at the RTC helm include December’s intimate South Pacific, Ovation-winner Gulf View Drive, and the West Coast premiere of Incognito. 

Spano talked about Heisenberg and how it’s already impacted his life earlier this week.

Q. How you would describe what the play is about?

A. It changes as we go through the rehearsal process. It’s about relationships, the one between these two people, but in a larger sense human relationships. How do we connect given the kind of trauma that everybody is the world experiences?… We look at how these two people hit and miss and find out how to be themselves with each other. It’s about learning how we can understand that other people might not see things the same as we do. There’s a line in the play: “We hold very different perspectives on experiences we imagine we’re sharing.” It’s true. We think that other people are seeing and hearing what we are, but they’re not. The more we recognize that, the more we can connect with other people.

How is the uncertainty theory illustrated in the play?

All of those ways of speaking, the scientific language and mode of thought are reflected in the play. You can’t know; you can’t put your finger on it. Even science can’t, because if you look at something closely, you affect it and change its nature. You can either know where something is or what it is, but not both at the same time. All these variables lead to the conclusion that we can’t really know for sure what or who something is. But we can know that we don’t know and proceed with that knowledge to try to make a connection. That’s the scientific language for what we can recognize in human connection, which is what we all crave in this life. 

What are the transformations that take place? Are they ones of perspective, or of understanding, or something else?

There’s a level of understanding where the two people come to a kind of freedom, a letting go of an understanding. My character also says, “Personalities don’t exist. They’re just the sum of the individual constituent things that people do, and the past that connects between those. There’s no concrete you that exists forever and ever, no solid self. It’s always fluctuating.” But society wants us to be one thing or somebody that they can look at and say, “This is Joe.” But it’s not so. And it’s difficult to accept that you’re not stable and concrete.

How has your experience so far affected you?

I was attracted to it because it was dealing with things that I already thinking about. Most concretely, it’s about a man in his 70s, as I am. How do you deal with age, how do you handle the idea of fading away? But I was also drawn to the idea of what is the reality of an identity. How can one move through life with all of these expectations and still recognize that one is fluid? There are so many reverberations in my own life. But that’s what great about real writing, that you find yourself applying it to your own situation.

Not to be too nosy, but can I get an example?

Maybe the most compelling thing is that my character holds onto things that are not beneficial for him. He covers himself up with protective ideas about himself and the world. He hides himself in music. I think that’s probably true in all of our lives, and mine certainly. I finding myself dealing with emotions and experiences that I have had as they surface in doing the play. That’s glorious because you are able to express things that you probably wouldn’t do in my daily life. Then it’s about picking and choosing to use the ones that are the most fruitful in showing this experience to an audience. Katharine is so good at getting the best of us out there on the stage.

More personally, every time something gets revealed in me – an emotion, a memory, some fear – it’s useful and because that’s what this play is about, I think I become more able to understand, or at least to see, my experience. That’s a big part of becoming secure in the world, to know your own experience, and get that the only world you know is your own.

Since Heisenberg is about chaos and fluidity, I imagine the balancing act of being in the moment and following the script must be delicate.

That’s always the problem with art. How do you stop inventing and discovering? But it has to be within bounds, because, on the most mundane levels, you’ve got to be audible and (hit your marks) for the lights. You explore within those strictures – the tone, how to be with what you’re feeling, letting the impact in. It can be new each time within that. It’s a juggling act. Faeline and I have talked about the idea that there’s really nothing that you can do wrong if you are present in the moment. 

You seem to have a lot of chemistry, if the promo video on YouTube is any indication.

Yeah, we do. We met when we were both doing Speaking of Stories, and I was knocked out by her performance. We wanted to do something together, and I thought of this play. It’s very intimate. That chemistry is what makes this production so much fun and important for me. I love the way she works, what she does. She’s very present and has an extremely flexible emotional range and an ability to go down deep and find things that are meaningful for her. It’s been great to work together and explore.


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