Send in the Clones

24. January, 2010 Theater No comments

Not quite an hour in length, Caryl Churchill’s two-actor one-act A Number isn’t nearly as well known as some of the British playwright’s older works such as Top Girls and Cloud 9, but it’s a marvelous, compact gem in its own right.

Gabriel Marin and James Carpenter in A Number. Photo by Kevin Berne

A father, Salter, is trying to reassure his son Bernard who’s just discovered that there are a number of clones of him running around. What’s worse, it’s been strongly implied that he’s one of the batch, not the original. Salter says the whole thing is an outrage and they should sue, but it slowly comes out that he knows more about it than he claims. Bernard is in fact a clone of his natural-born son whom he claims is dead, but no sooner does the scene end than we see Salter being confronted by the original Bernard, whom he gave up after a crap job of parenting and decided to try a do-over with a new son who started off exactly the same.

The same actor plays both Bernards in five parallel father-and-son scenes, as well as another one of the clones whom Salter has never met. The characters are named in the cast list, but the names are never uttered in the course of the dialogue, which is a dizzying dance of half-thoughts, evasions and interruptions.

First staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2002 with Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig, A Number was first seen locally in American Conservatory Theater’s 2006 West Coast premiere starring Bill Smitrovich and Josh Charles and directed by Anna Shapiro. Artistic director Michael Butler’s Center REPertory Company  staging in Walnut Creek stars James Carpenter and Gabriel Marin, the local actors who understudied that ACT production. In the meantime the two were last seen together at Thick House last fall in another play about the consequences of a medical experiment: Trevor Allen’s Frankenstein adaptation, The Creature.

While Center REP was in tech for The Syringa Tree in its usual artistic home upstairs in the Margaret Lesher Theatre at Lesher Center for the Arts, the company opened A Number Saturday night as its first additional “Off-Center” production in the intimate Knight Stage 3 downstairs.

Usually home to a variety of small theatre companies, the 133-seat house right next to the box office was transformed for this show to offer seating in the round. While some are seated  on the stage level below, only the higher tiers of the usual seating area are left, giving the impression of watching gladiatorial combat or, as my wife pointed out more aptly, a medical demonstration. Butler and managing director Scott Denison have created a striking all-white set on a low football-shaped, white-carpeted platform, with white chairs, white tables, and a few unused white props such as a MacBook in the coffee table.

Flashing lights and bombastic electronic music mark the brief blackouts between scenes, in which the cast make small costume changes to mark different times and different Bernards. Only the top half of each costume changes, but in each scene Melissa Anne Davis has dressed the two men in roughly parallel palettes–if one is wearing red, say, the other would wear a different shade or red–until the scene with the clone he doesn’t know, when the two appropriately enough don’t match at all.

Having read A Number a few times and seen the ACT production (and also interviewed its cast), it was fascinating to see what an entirely different interpretation the Center REP staging gives. There are aspects of each production that I like better than the other, but the stark contrast between them just makes me appreciate Churchill’s play more.

While the ACT cast sat and spoke with understated restraint, the Center REP cast moves around a lot, an appropriate choice for viewing in the round. The first Bernard especially paces in agitation in both his scenes, his world having been turned upside down. Marin does a terrific job of delineating the different Bernards. With Charles the difference between the clones was more a subtle matter of tone, but Marin’s expression, carriage and way of speaking is very different for each. When Salter said the clones didn’t look all that alike in the previous production, it was funny because he was obviously just saying that. This time he says it because it’s true.

Whereas Smitrovich’s Salter seemed shifty, actively altering his story to try to appease the Bernards and let as little of the truth out as possible–which was also the impression I got when I first read the script–Carpenter’s version feels far more sincere. He’s not telling the Bernards what he thinks they want to hear; he’s telling them what he thinks they need to hear, and it’s not a small difference. While he’s unsure how to respond to the original Bernard, he doesn’t seem afraid of him in the least, and that opens up his words and actions to a number of different interpretations.

A brisk 50 minutes without intermission, I wouldn’t say Butler’s saying is a better production than the one Marin and Carpenter understudied, nor is it a worse one. Seeing the 2006 staging made me notice new nuances in the play, but the interpretation was still largely what ‘d taken from it when I’d read it. Seeing it this time opened up whole new ways of looking at the text for me, and made me reassess the play from quite good to a great one.

A Number
Through February 7
Lesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Dr.
Walnut Creek, CA

Eighth show of 2010, attended January 23.

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