Proof of Macalester theater greatness

By Jesse Sawyer

Rachel Cole ’08 and David Jacobs ’07 are two of the best actors I have ever seen in my life. They paid me twenty dollars each to lead with that. And bought me a beer. I would’ve settled for just the beer, but I wasn’t about to turn down some greenbacks from a couple of soon-to-be-obscenely-overpaid thespians working on another of Mac Theater’s financial windfalls.

The latest money-raking blockbuster from Macalester, David Auburn’s Pulitzer/Tony award-winning Proof, stars Cole, Jacobs, Steph Gertken ’07 (also phenomenal, but five dollars short of a mention in the first paragraph), and Lucas Gerstner ’07 (who said something about bribery being an illegitimate basis for a theater review, whatever that pinko doublespeak is supposed to mean). The performance is a transparent ploy to cash in on the buzz surrounding the Hollywood adaptation of Auburn’s play and anything associated with Jake Gylenhaal (whose performance, although earnest, was bested by David Jacobs’ subtle brilliance [I just made another twenty dollars!]).

Gertken plays the central character, Catherine, the beleaguered daughter of Icarus-like Robert, played by Gerstner. Robert, a once-gifted mathematician whose genius turns to madness, is the absent center of the play’s narrative, whose already-looming shadow only grows in death. His scenes, all in flashback, are portrayed with a sensitivity and realism that demonstrate insanity as an affliction as opposed to a defining character trait, like crossing Bill Pullman’s schizophrenic in Igby Goes Down with Jeff Daniels’ professor-in-decline from The Squid and the Whale. Catherine, blessed/cursed with her father’s talents (“and some of his instabilities,” as older sister Claire [Cole] points out ), is caught in her father’s wake, terrified of following in his footsteps and unsure of what to do with the freedom his death affords her.

The conflicts of the play, which surround Robert’s unpublished notebooks and a specific groundbreaking proof, are simultaneously used as stand-ins for more universal themes of fate, rationality, and familial relations. It is, as Cole describes it, “a small play with large emotions about human connections at their best and worst.”
“At the same time,” adds Jacobs, “it points a finger at academia and the institutional pressures placed on people in elitist situations.” While seemingly a “small” play, Proof speaks volumes through the tensions that flare up and subside within its singular diegetic space, similar to works like Twelve Angry Men (and many of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone) that use space as a forced locus of conflict. The set for this particular production, flawlessly designed by Prof. Dan Keyser, works to this end through the juxtaposition of a psychologically relaxing backyard setting with the jarring content of the narrative. The music, performed live on saxophone by alum Dameun Strange ’95, echoes this theme, a melodic jazz haunt that enters and exits the space both as segue and accent, the warmth of which belies the tension that stretches across the performance space. (Both Strange and Keyser asked that I not reveal that they paid for several expensive meals and bottles of champagne in exchange for this positive mention. After they refused my demand for a blackmail sum, I promptly added this parenthetical aside.)
Director Prof. Harry Waters, Jr. was “relentless in the best way,” according to his cast members (to whom he undoubtedly paid great sums of money). The direction shows through in every way as an adept use of space, lighting (supplied by staff member Rich Wilson), and pantomimic movement. Each of the performers utilizes space as a visual manifestation of conflict, in such a way that something such as a bench, which in a lesser performance would serve only functional purposes, here becomes a concrete barrier that reinforces abstract narrative threads. Waters elicits incredibly impassioned performances from his actors in a play that is clearly written as a challenge to the abilities of actors. Jacobs, clearly kissing ass in order to gain favor for future high-salary roles, said of Waters, “[He] brought heart to the play and made us rise as actors in ways we’d never done before.” This drive shows through in Proof, a play that certainly deserves every cent of inflated profit it will net, and whose intensity never bogs the spectator down, but instead carries a sparse narrative to soaring heights heretofore unseen from an official Mac Theater performance. (And that’s the kind of review that only big money can buy, people!)
Proof can be seen on the Main Stage Theater, October 6, 7, 12, 13, 14 @ 7:30 p.m. and October 8 @ 2:00 p.m.