Two cheers for A Number at N.C. Stage

    British playwright Caryl Churchill has never made art easy for herself, her actors and directors, or her audiences. Possessor of a restless intellect, a historian’s reach, a psychologist’s penetration, a moralist’s demands, a poet’s voice, and a master dramatist’s stunning theatricality, she can’t stand still, let alone pat. A name to reckon with internationally for the 30 years since the premiere of her best-known work, Cloud Nine, Churchill has been fearless, if chilly, onstage, leaping across cultures and centuries, breaching sex roles, confronting political, economic, and mythic powers, and seemingly reinventing herself with each of her many outings. Followers never know what to expect next (rhymed verse? stilt-walking? a shape-shifter loosed on London?), although, disturbingly, themes of murder and of the emotional abuse of children appear more often than not, as they do again in her 2002 A Number, the hour-length drama now at the North Carolina Stage Company.

    A Number fairly represents Churchill’s writing over the last dozen years, in which she has pared her theater back to the actors and a stripped-down language, though she still deploys a humor so black interpreters and theatergoers sometimes miss the joke. The superficial subject is human cloning. Though a good deal of the argument between the characters concerns the impact of knowing that genetically identical versions of one’s self wander the world, it soon becomes plain that no clones are needed to make one’s sense of self problematic. More than anything, A Number concerns itself with the numberless ways in which we misunderstand and neglect ourselves and others.

    The story is told in five brief confrontations between Salter, a man in his early 60s, and three of his sons, none of whom are aware of each other’s existence before the action begins. It unravels the mystery that led to “some mad scientist” illegally making copies of Salter’s firstborn — a mystery that deeply involves the mother, who never appears and yet remains key to understanding Salter’s damaged personality. Churchill’s script offers no directions or other clues for staging beyond a highly stylized effusion of often unpunctuated and contradictory words. The difficulty of mounting this work is deciding how to go about it: stylize or humanize? In the hands of director Ron Bashford, this Number attempts to have it both ways, with mixed results.

    The stylization is embodied in the use of an arena setting. Bashford, in a program note, vigorously sets out the reasons advocates of theater in the round have long championed its impact. Some believe such stagings are more involving than the standard picture-frame proscenium, bringing viewers more directly into the action, as at a sporting event.

    Proponents of Brechtian, “thinking” theater suggest that being able, or forced, to see fellow patrons throughout a performance reinforces one’s awareness of attending a show, encouraging an intellectual grappling with content rather than an emotional response. Maybe so, but there are also drawbacks to an arena: a tendency toward circular, sometimes dizzying blocking; the possibility of distraction due to fidgeting in the audience; and the likelihood that, at meaningful moments, one ends up looking at the back of an actor’s head instead of his face.

    Lighting an arena is also extremely problematic, almost invariably resulting in shadows more unavoidable than intentionally atmospheric. (The low ceiling and short throws of NC Stage’s space only complicate an already difficult job for the lighting designer, and an oddly unbalanced arena focuses far too much attention on a single row of the audience.)

    The acting, on the other hand, has been handled naturalistically, with the text plumbed for full psychological truth. Charles McIver, always an engaging performer, plays the sons, creating subtle variations altogether appropriate to such similar beings; he’s especially winning in his most genial part, but his villain isn’t always as frightening as he should be. Graham Smith, as Salter, also exudes an appealing humanity; unfortunately, Salter understands and presents himself in confusing ways never resolved by the performance.

    Pacing, more than anything, is at issue here. Handling the dialogue realistically slows down the headlong rush so evident on the page, as does making the breaks between each of the scenes longer than necessary. This hinders the emergence of laughter, whether nervous or otherwise, making the production more ponderous than powerful. A couple of unscripted gestures also detract momentarily: an awkward reach for a hug motivated neither by speech nor the preceding action; a similarly strained proffering of flowers.

    Towards the end of the play, Salter says, “It’s been like a storm going on.” Though this may change in the course of the run, the first performance of this worthy production of A Number was, sadly, too often becalmed.

    Directed by Ron Bashford. Scenic Design: Don Baker. Lighting Design: Sarah Elliott. Sound Design: Hans Meyer. Costume Design: Deborah Austin. Production Stage Manager: Connie Silver. With: Graham Smith (Salter); Charles McIver (Salter’s sons).

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7 thoughts on “Two cheers for A Number at N.C. Stage

  1. AshevilleObserver

    Nice to see Mountain Express running a theatre review by a critic who is knowledgeable and a good writer. Can we expect to see more?

  2. Rebecca Sulock

    Expect much more! We’re soon to officially launch a project that aims to generate a broader conversation about local theatre; and will feature regular reviews. Details to follow soon…

  3. Jeff

    Hurray to the Xpress!

    It has been quite a long time since I saw an honest theatre review in this town. Thank you Steven, for writing this review.

  4. rdean

    I’m not sure what is more “honest” about this review than others. It is certainly more negatively “critical” (in the colloquial sense of the word). But it is similar to others “in this town” in that it amounts to little more than a series of pronouncements of one commentator’s interpretive opinions. Some of it is downright confusing, and I can’t get a sense of what it was really like to be there, which is a journalist’s first obligation. I guess sharing one’s negative view is more “honest” in a socially courageous sense, but it’s not especially helpful in a broader context. Declarations of background homework aside, it’s just like so much other writing about theatre in that it fails to provide truly contextual commentary that would complement and illuminate audience members’ experiences of theatre-going in comparison to others–and invite an ongoing dialogue. I’d prefer a more stimulating, contextual and nuanced point of view more coherently argued, and with my experience in mind, not just the critic’s. The review also suffers from an authoritative tone that fails to acknowledge the writers’s own critical stance as part of the story. Now I know what Samuels thought about the performance, and that he has a decent vocabulary. So what?

  5. NB

    How can the reviewer comment so harshly in reference to doing the play in the round without any discussion about the honesty of doing so and the brave risk taken to change the setting so dramatically? This writer, though eloquent, is making judgments that are far too harsh and only examine the negative side of the choices made for this play. The show is marvelous and the arena seating is fresh and different, especially for an intense show such as A Number. One last note, Caryl Churchill is a captivating and immensely talented playwright who deserves much more than what is said about her in this poorly approached review.

  6. R B

    It seems like a bit of a stretch to call an arena staging “brave risk.” It happens all the time at UNCA.

  7. tigerlily

    I wouldn’t say that arena staging is a “brave risk” either, though it’s a neat idea for this show.

    RB is right that it happens all the time at UNCA. It is also the format of the well-known mainstream Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and many other theatres, including Shakespeare’s Globe (almost).

    The reviewer says it’s “Brechtian”, which is a bizzare way of describing this show. I don’t think he gets Brecht, or the way this show was done. I guess he doesn’t like Brecht, describing Brecht theatre as “thinking” with quotes around the word. I saw the show last night and thought it had a very immediate feel. It was not at all alienating (in the sense of Brecht’s alienation effect). The reviewer seems like he is over-reaching dramaturgically to justify his view of the show (or his knowledge).

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