Double bill at The Gamm a wild ride

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Alexander Platt and Marianna Bassham in a scene from “Far Away” by playwright Caryl Churchill, on stage at the Gamm through October 13.

    “When you’ve just stepped in you can’t tell what’s going to happen.”      That quote is an apt way to describe the hypnotic words of playwright Caryl Churchill and a good embarkation point to delve into the riveting and hallucinatory production her two plays “A Number” and “Far Away” are receiving at The Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket.  It’s a wild ride and you may get a little lost along the way and perhaps that’s part of the point. On this theatrical journey your subconscious stirs from its slumber and that demonstrates, vividly, what great theatre, that most ephemeral of art forms, is capable of. These plays have the power to simply show us our dreams, even if those dreams should prove to be nightmares.
A director friend of mine once told me as we rehearsed a play that “our job begins after the audience leaves the theater.” That is certainly the case here as I have been unable to not think about the characters, ideas, issues and images raised up here. The Gamm’s delicately engaging production of these two plays serve as a subtext of the actual events presented here and manages to illuminate your consciousness even as it tickles and sometimes befuddles you.
This is the sort of theatre I love, it asks the audience to become a part of the cast and experience, requires a little heavy mental lifting from you to help create it’s meaning and by doing so creates an evening of communal engagement. This is theatre, not just as story or live spectacle but a sort of modern holy mystery play.
So what’s it all about? To reveal too much is to give it all away and spoil the experience. And this is a trip you must take yourselves to fully appreciate. Each of the concise one-act plays are placed in the not too distant future and examine the lives of wholly identifiable people in situations where the events that govern their lives are, often to absurd lengths, wholly out of their control.
Rather like the characters we meet, we in the audience are, from the outset, kept a little off balance and on the edge too. As we enter the theater we hear all around us the sing-song sounds of children singing nursery rhymes intermingled with the tinkle of tiny laughter. The effect is unnerving and mildly disturbing. Before us is a white partition upon which black and white photographs of children have been placed, behind that a wall of glass windows. These will be used later, at the moment they serve to offer distorted fun-house reflections of the action and the audience. This is very much of a piece with the worlds that Playwright Churchill presents here where there seems always to be a sense of the sinister lurking right under the surface of things.
And it is what lies under the surface of events that matter here. In “A Number”, to judge from mere appearances, we are in a sort of Sci-Fi story, a future involving mad scientists and cloning. But underlying this scenario is an existential crisis worthy of Samuel Beckett coupled with the twisted familial relationships found in the works of Harold Pinter. Bernard, played by Tony Estrella, is a young man aghast to discover that he has been cloned as a child and that there are “a number” of his selves out there in the world. But from this futuristic starting point we venture forth into the realm of philosophical inquiry and the question of what, if anything, it means to be human. Are we merely a sum of a combination of the bits and specks that make up our essential components? What makes us special?
These are questions that confound even the non-cloned and extend to the actions, inactions and behavior patterns of Bernard’s father Salter. Would he, given a choice, do what he did all over again? Indeed, does ‘choice’, given each human individual’s unique and almost programmed nature, even exist? Are the concepts of consciousness and free will merely illusory?
These are heady questions with no easy answers that the playwright thankfully does not attempt to answer for you. Instead, Churchill sharply and slyly frames the crisis in such a way that requires you to search for answers and to question the very idea of yourselves.
In the second play “Far Away” we witness an entire world at war and the three seeming disconnected vignettes that make up this piece illustrate how acquiescence to the cruelty inherent in a totalitarian state, or perhaps in the world at large, will ultimately crush your spirit. Whether this is a cautionary tale or the author’s observation of empathetic entropy all around us is, again, up to you to decide.
“Far Away” presents three scenes that take place over the course of the life of Joan and we slowly realize that what she has witnessed all her life is so much sheer brutality that she has simply become accustomed to it; the evil around her has become to seem casual, even a bit banal. Up to a point.
Churchill takes a certain delight here in pushing the extremes of her circumstances to absurdist lengths; eventually humanity’s constant state of strife with the world at large escalates to a conflagration in which man, animals and the forces of nature are locked in a ceaseless struggle. The Canadians, the Venezuelans and the mosquitoes make up one coalition. The engineers, the chefs, the children under five and the musicians make up another. The Bolivians have been working with gravity. The juxtapositions employed here are hilarious and horrific all at once.
I very much like how Playwright Churchill manages to combine the non-linear and the quotidian in “Far Away”, but the tenuous connections between the three scenes can seem jarring. Especially as “Far Away” is coupled here with “A Number”, a play so concerned with the ideas of nature versus nurture I fear that we do not always see clearly enough how the events Joan witnesses in one scene influences and shapes her actions in the next. We surmise that she accepts the evil around her; we don’t always see clearly how or why. But we do understand, with a sense of encroaching foreboding, “Far Away”, for all its absurdity, really isn’t at all that far from us.
Madness is always on the margins of these plays and the points that Caryl Churchill makes are like the tips of ice bergs floating in a sea of dreams; the bulk of meaning lies under the surface. “Far Away” implores us to explore our conscience while “A Number” examines both our humanity and the implications of our scientific achievements and suggests, among many other things, that the unexamined life is perhaps worth living. Both plays ask you to free your mind from the fetters of literalism and engage in a dream-state that is perhaps not quite as unworldly as we would like to think.

“A Number” and “Far Away” at The Gamm Theatre, Pawtucket, now through October 13. See listings for details.

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