Friday, February 3, 2012

For Whistler's second number, A Number

Danny Bryck - but which one? - with Mark Cohen in A Number.

Whistler in the Dark has taken to a kind of "expanded," "Season 2.0" approach to their programming these days - works come in pairs, often in orbit with offerings from other friendly companies, and with various Easter eggs and one-offs hidden away on nights when the main stage is dark.

Right now, for instance (or at least through the weekend), they're offering Caryl Churchill's A Number in rep with Fen, and last weekend threw in a reading of the rarely-seen Vinegar Tom just for kicks.

And you know, I'll say this one more time, even though I know you're tired of hearing it: this is what our academic regional theatres should be doing.  It's wonderful that Whistler, thanks to Meg Taintor and her indefatigable team, are steadily providing (on a shoestring) strong productions of intellectually challenging theatre, while with their multi-million-dollar budgets the ART downgrades Gershwin and the Huntington works and re-works various Off-Broadway trends.  It's strange indeed to think that our college theatres are now covertly (or in the case of the ART, overtly) anti-intellectual, but that's the way it is.

Oh well, at least we've still got Whistler, and a few other daring fringe groups.  And the New Rep, Merrimack, and the Lyric do program a "risk" every once in a while.  So all is not lost - it's just all backwards.  Our educated class has decided to abandon high art for popular art with a p.c. political cast.  Which is close to the opposite of the intended goal of the nonprofit regional system, if you ask me.

But anyway, back to A Number, which is minor Churchill, but still of interest.  We've seen it once before in Boston, and though I'd argue this is the slightly stronger production, it's still not perfect.  Churchill penned the script in response to the hysteria over the cloning of Dolly, the short-lived synthetic sheep of the 90's, and she doesn't seem to have been interested much in the actual ethics of the cloning technique per se; she's more interested in what the idea of cloning does to our ideas about morality in general.

In A Number, Churchill posits an intriguing social and scientific experiment "gone wrong" (although actually, in scientific terms it has been wildly successful).  An unhappy parent saddled with a troubled child decides to dump his firstborn and "start over" with the same genome - i.e., the same "nature" - but with a far more engaged and loving "nurture."

Thus Churchill sets up a rather obvious Cain-and-Abel conflict (once you-know-who finds out about you-know-what).  But the playwright's most striking dramatic gambit comes with her introduction of a third clone (when Dad wasn't looking, his lab took advantage of his frozen samples to produce "a number" of models in addition to the one he ordered).  This happy camper is utterly at ease with the idea that he is simply one of many (who are all just like him, of course), and through his chirpy optimism Churchill seems to giggle low in her throat at both our current Disneyfied ideas of personal satisfaction, and at the pretentious moral judgments of those who are obsessed with moral uniqueness, and horrified at cloning in principle.

The challenge in A Number lies in the curious conundrums it poses its central actor - the three clones must perforce all be impersonated by the same performer, only with clear distinctions in internal "personhood."  But just how far should those distinctions go?  For shouldn't the clones share some deep personality traits?  What in their make-up is due to "nurture," and what to "nature"?  Churchill gives a few hints, but generally stays mum on the problem. It is a puzzlement.

At Whistler, the versatile Danny Bryck has opted to characterize his trio of clones with three cleanly differentiated accents (two of them, appropriately enough, closer to each other than the third), as well as a carefully variegated physical affect.  Questions of internal difference remain murkier, however, largely because as his morally compromised Father, the subtle Mark Cohen remains pretty consistent internally throughout - when part of the point, intriguingly enough, is that he's a different person with each of the clones.  Thus his "tragedy" - when Cain inevitably kills Abel - doesn't shake us as it could, or should.

But the last scene is still wicked fun, as it usually is (Bryck could actually ratchet up the I'm-happy-being-a-Beta vibe a few notches, but he's still in a good place).  And once again, we realize that Caryl Churchill has raised many more questions than she has deigned to answer.


  1. I graduated from Emerson College in May, and I have to say that your analysis of the academic theater scene is spot-on. I still cringe when I think about the mainstage productions I saw in the Majestic and how so many incredible resources were not being committed to anything but pop culture and flashy spectacles.

  2. Thanks, Jillian, for your comment. But you know, the problem goes deeper than anyone seems willing to admit. Theatre, after all, only reflects its institutional frame. What's on stage in our college theatres is quite the unconscious indictment of how these institutions see themselves these days: they are for-profit purveyors of entertainment. I know they claim to be "non-profit," but they are market-driven corporations, pure and simple.

  3. Honestly, A Number is a bore. Not even Whistler, which I consider one of the most exciting theatre companies in town, could help this script. Only the acting was intriguing.

    The play suffers from what happens when authors attempt to write in a genre in which they are unfamiliar: a conviction that they are creating something profoundly original while at best recycling what came before. In this case, the notion of using science-fiction as a vehicle to consider either the social-science question of nature versus nurture, or the philosophical questions of identity and difference or the relationship between doppelgängers and their original is something that has been done far more creatively and with greater impact in novels by Philip K. Dick, short stories by Stanislaw Lem, and comic books by Grant Morrison.

    Fen, on the other hand, is an impressive work and it's rather hard to believe that both were written by the same author.

  4. I'm afraid I don't think A Number is a bore, although as I said, it's minor Churchill; I think in the end the topic interested her less than she thought it was going to. But it's still far less boring than most new plays these days! And I think you're reading it wrong - it's not science fiction; in fact it's not genre at all. (Are you sure you're not making a variant of the same mistake Isaac Butler makes with Shakespeare?) And I don't mean to knock Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, or Grant Morrison (although I don't know him) but I do think Churchill's usual voice has a purchase on these ideas that's different from theirs. By the way, I think Morrison has written a few plays lately that have had some success in Britain. Why don't you suggest to Whistler that they give one of them a reading? Or why don't I?