What if you found out one day that you weren't unique? That's one of many questions driving A Number, a drama about cloning that is getting a Michigan premiere from Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theatre.
The story revolves around Salter, an aging father, and his son Bernard. Actually, he has several sons, all cloned from one original scion. In five short, tense scenes, different clones come to visit him, trying to penetrate the elaborate lies he has cooked up about their lives and their origins.
The play's author, Caryl Churchill, is known chiefly as a feminist playwright, and it's no coincidence that this is a play without women characters. In fact, the dramatic essence of A Number is a much older story. From mythological golems to Frankenstein to "The Monkey's Paw," literature is stocked with tales of how men suffer when they try to do an end run around the womb. The ancient fantasy of giving life without sex seldom ends in happiness.
It's also worth noting that Churchill's 1994 play, The Skriker, was recently given a high-tech staging at Henry Ford Community College, with electronic motion-capture suits, computer animation and large-screens video. It seems the local stage increasingly uses multimedia or video clips to try to draw people into theaters. In contrast, the Planet Ant production is about as elementary as you get: A rug, two chairs, a table, some papers and a cast of two. What you don't get in bells and whistles, though, you get in innovative staging.
The play's director, Eric Maher, has set the play up in the round, which, in Planet Ant's black box theater, puts the players smack in the center of the audience. And, depending on where you sit, you are likely to see a different play. Maher says this theater-in-the-round is an attempt to exploit people's familiarity with cinematic technique, without shoehorning in video clips and multimedia effects. In this way, the audience can affect the sense of drama. Sit high in the back and you get an "establishing shot." Sit low in the front and you get close-ups. Sit pressed against the wall and you get dramatic over-the-shoulder shots. It's an interesting gambit, and some are certain to return to the theater just to try it.
Much of the play's drama comes from how cloning strips the characters of their individuality. Works that explore "themes of identity" have almost become "pomo" tropes. But A Number cleverly gives its characters a more practical reason to hash out the nature of identity. And try they do, grappling with pronouns, trying to assign monetary values, even wondering what makes people unique in the first place. But Churchill's nimble text explores identity issues without getting bogged down in them. In fact, the play hints that exploring our identity may not be a path to happiness, that individuality, like a soul, is something we cannot prove, but can only feel.
It's a cerebral play, but not a didactic one. The text doesn't offer answers so much as it poses questions. In fact, it's often an irritating challenge to figure out what is happening when the lights come up, as every scene opens right after a major plot point, thrusting the audience into a situation, leaving it to spectators to make sense of what's going on. Sometimes, this tactic tantalizes us, as when Bernard tries to uncover his provenance and the audience must also put two and two together. But this kind of in medias res can also be disorienting for those who prefer their drama neat.
This staging of A Number made the ambitious decision to use British dialect extensively. Maher even brought in dialect coach Kelly Rossi for several weeks of work with the cast. But it's more than a director's conceit. When father and son regard each other tenderly in one scene, it's amusing to see some authentically chilly British filial bonding. Unfortunately, the players have a hard time preserving credible dialect during the story's many emotional outbursts.
Longtime theatergoers will be pleased to see bushy-eyebrowed theater vet Bob Skrok onstage. It's a challenge for any actor to play an unsympathetic character like Salter, a mendacious character who never seems to finish a sentence, but Skrok does a fair job, sometimes showing the smoldering feelings that lie beneath his halting mien. But the play's true pleasure is seeing talented comedic actor Michael McGettigan getting cast against type. For all his pop-eyed shenanigans with local improv groups, McGettigan has a commanding presence on stage, and slides seamlessly into this challenging role, doing convincing accents, darting backstage for quick costume changes, and playing several characters in one night, ranging from mild to menacing.
A Number runs at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. Sundays, through March 3. Planet Ant Theatre is at 2357 Caniff Ave., Hamtramck. Tickets are $15, $10 for students and seniors.
Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]