Monday, March 9, 2009

A Review of A Number

Stage Left - On your way to A Number you may drive through a downtown awaking from a coma, discovering missing and paralyzed limbs. You may hear on the radio the words bankruptcy, financial crisis, market meltdown, record unemployment, toxic assets. As you turn right on 12th and left on 3rd and right on 16th, you may drive past a group of young men, wandering aimlessly past dark houses, yelling obscenities and throwing stray punches.

Then, on the corner, you will find the Paul Engle Center Neighborhood Center for the Arts’ white fa├žade glowing, drenched in swooping murals of rainbow people and bicycle spokes, looking like a remnant of the Old West met the Wizard of Oz.

And then, as you sit down to Stage Left’s exacting production of Caryl Churchill’s short play, you may remember that even amidst the low hanging clouds of natural disaster, recession and poverty, the human spirit is as free to imagine and create as it ever was.

You sit down. The house lights go dark. Two men take their places in the ad hoc living room before you: one older, slightly hunched and defeated, in a dingy sweater; one younger, shoulders back, in a button-down shirt. Four lamps come up to warmly illuminate their faces, and they hold you spellbound and intrigued on the tip of their tongues for the next brief hour with Churchill’s fast-moving fragmented sentences and mythic-scaled themes.

“A number…” the play begins. There are a number of—not twins, but scientifically engineered copies of the younger man, Bernard (Steve Wunderlich). His father, Salter (Steven Marc Weiss), is deeply troubled by this news. There weren’t supposed to be copies. How could they? Without his consent? “They’ve damaged your uniqueness, weakened your identity. How dare they?” the father says. Bernard wonders if he himself is the original, or if he is a copy too. For how would he really know?

And we are introduced to one of the play’s themes. Who are we? And how do we come to know ourselves?

Bit by bit, Bernard discovers through his father’s reticent revelations challenging truths about who he really is and how he came into the world, while his father tries to hang onto his relationship with his son, and Bernard tries to hold on to some sense of self.

Bernard tells his father about these copies. They are the same, but not the same. They are exactly the same genetic person, but culturally, personally, they differ. Does Bernard want to meet them, the father wonders. Yes, Bernard thinks. He does.

But the story unfolds around the father, who is visited (almost Christmas Carol style) first by the secret original son and then by a cheerful copy whom he didn’t raise. The familial secrets revealed make the plot something of an unraveling mystery that I don’t want to unwind here, but the deep questions of identity persist throughout. In the final scene, the father talks to a copy of his son whom he’s never before met. “Tell me something about yourself,” he commands. The copy begins telling a story. No, that’s something you did. The copy lists things he likes: blue socks, banana ice cream. No, those are only things you like. “Tell me something intimate.” The copy obliges by telling about how he’s fond of his wife’s ears. That’s something about somebody else. In the end, the father is unsatisfied. The copy cannot satisfactorily articulate who he is; he can only tell what he likes and what he does. These are not the things, the father feels, that constitute a human being. There must be something more to being oneself, to being a unique person.

The copy wonders if the father can tell him apart from the son he raised. The father tells him that he wouldn’t mistake him for his son, “because of the eyes. You don’t look at me in the same way.” But by this time, after so many twists and revelations, we wonder if the father is telling the truth. Could he actually tell this copy from the son he raised? In the end, what makes his son unique is his relationship with him—how they know each other and the experiences they share. Identity is almost beside the point.

The story unfolds briskly and is deftly handled by Wunderlich and Weiss whose cadences amount to something of a linguistic duet. They interrupt and finish each other’s sentences with natural timing and use silence as effectively as sound. They build tension-filled relationships without resorting to melodrama and inhabit their characters physically as well as emotionally. Wunderlich, who plays three different versions of “himself,” does so with pleasing understatement; and Weiss handles highly dramatic moments with delicate authenticity, as when recounting his wife’s suicide.

After the show, the “house” lights return you to the interior of the Paul Engle Center, which is just as colorful as the outside, seeping with bright blue and pink walls lined with sculpted masks and portraits of diverse faces painted thriftily onto narrow paper lunch sacks. You realize this setting has conspired with its inhabitants to create an absorbing aesthetic experience.

Director Joshua Beadle mingles with the small crowd and the actors. He explains that he’ll graduate from the University in May, and that he began Stage Left Productions so he could have the opportunity to direct, and also because he wanted to see more contemporary productions in the area. He found the venue because he happened to be waiting on the table of its proprietor: a happy coincidence.

That a fertile oasis like the Paul Engle Center exists and that a handful of people can grab a couch and some lamps and create a theatrical experience that opens up a plane on which you can ask big questions about life and identity in the midst of a gloomy economy and a challenging flood recovery is edifying and heartening. I hope more people take advantage of this opportunity to be entertained while pondering their own humanity.

What makes you who you are? Culture? Nature? Experience?

And who are you anyway?

Stage Left Productions might just help you come closer to an answer. Go see the show, playing next week in a town near you (Iowa City) at another great arts incubator-type venue (Public Space One).

--Vicki Krajewski

Vicki Krajewski has acted and directed with theatre companies in Chicago and Iowa including the Prairie Center for the Arts, Sandcastle Productions, Dreamwell, Catalyst, Iowa City Community Theatre and City Circle. Several of her short plays and monologues have been produced in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Along with her performance pieces, she does occasional newspaper reporting, freelance feature writing, technical writing, personal essays and even some poetry.

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