The Pythagorean theorem is common knowledge, but playwright David Wells saw material for a rock musical in the bizarre true story of the man behind the math.
The Ann Arbor-based Wells wrote the book for the play “Irrational,” which will make its world premiere run at the Yellow Barn, April 22-May 15, in a production by Theatre Nova. The play follows the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras, whose cult of followers is upended when a newcomer named Hippasus introduced the concept of irrational numbers.
Wells’ fascination with this unusual subject matter arose while reading a book about the history of the number zero.
“There was one little throwaway paragraph that talked about Pythagoras having this devout cult of Pythagoreans that was based on divinity being found in ratios, which is where we get rational numbers,” Wells says. “There was a sentence that said one of his followers discovered irrational numbers and Pythagoras had him killed.”
That follower was Hippasus, although scholars differ on whether he actually discovered irrational numbers and whether Pythagoras personally sentenced him to death for it. (Pythagoras, however, was indeed the leader of a philosophical movement known as Pythagoreanism.) Wells threw himself into further research on the topic and pitched the idea to friend and composer R. MacKenzie Lewis, asserting that the story “makes as much sense as a musical as anything else.”
“I said, ‘I either have the dumbest idea ever or this could be something cool,’ ” Wells says.
The two began working on the show in early 2013 and did a staged reading at Eastern Michigan University in 2014, where it caught the eye of the now-defunct Performance Network Theatre’s Carla Milarch. Milarch hosted a second staged reading at the Performance Network and then slated a full-fledged production at the theater, bringing it along with her to her new company, Theatre Nova, when the Performance Network shut down.
Milarch, who is directing Theatre Nova’s production of “Irrational,” says she was intrigued by the show’s unusual material and gleeful use of anachronisms. The action takes place in ancient Greece but the costuming and production design channel 1980s New York. In one scene, for example, Pythagoras plays with a Rubik’s Cube.
Milarch says Lewis’ score also has gone over particularly well in staged readings, describing its musical genre hodgepodge as “ ‘Hamilton’-esque.”
“There’s straight musical theater, then there’s a musical number that’s got a heavy Salt-N-Pepa influence,” she says. “There’s a rap number. There’s smooth, ’70s, almost Burt Bacharach stuff. It’s just a really fun, eclectic mix of musical styles.”
Even after two staged readings, Milarch says Theatre Nova’s production of “Irrational” has “come to fruition” through a lengthy workshopping process involving herself, her cast and Wells and Lewis, who participated throughout rehearsals. Actor Matthew Pecek, who plays the disgruntled Pythagorean Damascus, says he enjoyed the opportunity to work directly with Wells and Lewis on the show.
“It’s been a very collaborative process,” Pecek says. “People have been very free with allowing other people’s opinions and other people’s takes on characters.”
Although the show has undergone considerable revision since its original staged reading, Wells says he’s pleased with the “irreverent” resulting work. He says the key lay in looking at one of the world’s most famous mathematicians as not only a cult leader, but a con man.
“The story itself was more fun when the production was sort of a three-card Monte,” he says. “The audience is watching this story, but they don’t quite pick the ending out until it falls in their lap.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
April 22-May 15
8 p.m. Thur.-Sat.;
2 p.m. Sun.
The Yellow Barn
410 W. Huron,