PlayMakers Repertory Company will present A Number, a thought-provoking 2002 domestic drama with a sci-fi twist penned by 73-year-old English dramatist and screenwriter Caryl Churchill (Cloud Nine, Top Girls, Serious Money), on Sept. 7-11 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art. Human cloning, personal identity, nature vs. nurture, and parental responsibility are the intertwined subjects of this intense 21st century tragedy, which unfolds in a series of increasingly tense father-son confrontations.
In reviewing the show’s September 2002 world premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in London, The Daily Telegraph wrote: “Part psychological thriller, part topical scientific speculation, and part analysis of the relationship between fathers and their sons, [A Number] combines elegant structural simplicity with an astonishing intellectual and emotional depth…. What a tremendous play this is, moving thought-provoking and dramatically.”
“I’d actually never even read the script until last spring when [PlayMakers Rep producing artistic director] Joe Haj sent it to me,” says director Mike Donahue, “but I had been hearing friends talk about it ever since it premiered in the States [Off-Broadway in December 2004]. It’s one of those scripts that nearly every actor, writer, and director I know drools over, because it’s such a rich gift — the language is so precise yet open, and there’s such a challenging yet fulfilling ambiguity at work in the play.”
Donahue adds, “On the page, [A Number] can easily look stylized, impenetrable, and distancing; but the second those words are spoken out loud, they become immediate, unfiltered, clear, and raw. The playing of it requires a kind of stunning verbal acrobatics, and the fracturing of language is really just a transcript of the way we speak in everyday life, especially when we’re trying to work through extreme trauma and situations that are so complex there don’t even yet exist paradigms for talking about them, let alone processing them.
“[Playwright Caryl] Churchill grapples with some really big questions — how we define the self/our individuality, nature vs. nurture — but at its heart, A Number is a father-son(s) play,” explains Donahue. “It challenges us to ask these big abstract questions while allowing us to feel an immediate, personal, and real way into them.”
He adds, “I was especially excited by the opportunity to work on something that would require such focus, rigor, and humanity from the entire team — it’s got enough substance to be a three-hour play, even though it’s condensed into roughly 60 minutes. This is the kind of script where the more you give to it and the deeper you dig, the more it rewards and gives back.”
A Number, which stars UNC professor of dramatic art and PlayMakers mainstay Ray Dooley as Salter and New York actor Josh Barrett as Bernard 1, Bernard 2, and Michael Black, is the first of three shows in the UNC professional-theater-in-residence’s fifth PRC2 second-stage season, performed in the 120- to 200-seat Kenan Theatre and followed by post-play discussions with the cast, creative team, and experts on the issues that the play raises.
Instead of thumbnailing the show’s plot, director Mike Donahue says, “Let me give you more of the backstory than the actual plot: basically, 40 years ago Salter (Ray Dooley) and his wife had a child, Bernard 1 (Josh Barrett). Salter and his wife were both in a really dark place. He was probably suffering from PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder] after Vietnam, and she seems to have been bipolar. Both [of them] were heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol.
“For the first two years of Bernard 1’s life,” Donahue says, “his parents neglected him (severely), leaving him alone for days at a time, locking him in closets, not even fully conscious of what they were doing.”
He adds, “Two years after Bernard 1 was born, Salter’s wife threw herself on the tracks of a subway; for two more years, Salter raised Bernard 1 by himself (and things got even worse), until one day Salter was presented with the opportunity to take part in a kind of cloning experiment. He agreed to have his son, Bernard 1, cloned; he then gave Bernard 1 up to child services, sobered up, and raised the cloned son, Bernard 2 (also Josh Barrett) as if he were the original — a fresh start.
“Flash forward 35 years,” says Donahue. “When the play begins, Bernard 2 has just found out that he may have been a clone and that in fact a number of other clones were also made (which is news to Salter, too). As the play moves forward, the truth begins to come out, we learn that Bernard 1 is still alive (and comes to confront his father), Bernard 1 and Bernard 2 meet — with dire consequences — and at the end of the play, we see Salter meeting one of the other clones, Michael Black (Josh Barrett again).”
End of “SPOILERS” Section
“[Dramatist Caryl] Churchill purposefully withholds a lot of specific, concrete information (given circumstances like how much time has passed between scenes, how long a scene has been going on before we pick up with it),” points out director Mike Donahue, “and oftentimes the little bit of backstory you do get is lied about and lied about again so that you’re never entirely sure of what the ‘truth’ may actually be. So, we’re continually having to stop and ask (and re-ask): ‘OK, wait, how long has this been, and what have they actually already told each other, and what do they actually already know?!?’
“Working on the play becomes an act of excavation,” Donahue claims, “It feels like you’re on incredibly shaky ground when you set out, and you just have to continue making and remaking decisions about backstory and given circumstances until you really hit on the things that unlock the play for you and allow it to take off. Our process has become one of learning to be comfortable on ground that will certainly get less and less shaky as we go, but will always remain somewhat so, and on purpose.”
Besides director Mike Donahue and PRC producing artistic director Joseph Haj, the PlayMakers Repertory Company creative team for A Number includes production manager Michael Rolleri, scenic and costume designer Jan Chambers, lighting designer Burke Brown, sound designer/engineer Ryan Gastelum, vocal coach John Patrick, movement coach Craig Turner, dramaturg Karen O’Brien, and stage manager Sarah Smiley.
“One of the biggest challenges [in staging A Number in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre] was creating a world physically and visually that feels specific, concrete, and grounded, but doesn’t clutter or weigh down the efficiency of [playwright Caryl] Churchill’s language,” claims director Mike Donahue. “There’s a real danger with this play of going too abstract or designed, which totally cuts against how present, immediate, and raw the five scenes of the play are. There’s an equal danger of going too realistic, of filling in, and showing too many details.
“In this play,” Donahue says, “these are real people in a real place; but there’s an elegantly distilled sense of reality and a heightened sense of theatricality (since you have one actor playing two clones of himself). So, we basically had to figure out a way to walk that fine line.”
Donahue adds, “[Dramatist Caryl] Churchill calls for the entirety of the action to take place where Salter lives. We felt like this was much more of a kitchen-table play than a living room/couch play, so we’re in Salter’s kitchen.
“Since you never see anyone enter or exit a scene, there’s no door,” says Donahue, “You basically get the bare minimum of details/stuff necessary for the action of the scene to move forward. And because there’s so little in the space, each detail becomes immensely important in providing clues of class, period, location, etc.”
Donahue adds, “We’ve also done some work to shrink down the playing space (it’s quite small, even for the Kenan Theatre) and pull it forward (it breaks the fourth wall and juts into the front row of the audience), again in an effort to allow the language to breathe, yet remain immediate and present….
“With the lighting,” says director Mike Donahue, “we’re not creating a theatrically neutral or abstract space, nor are we doing full-on realism. We’re always in the same room, so we’re looking for simple subtle ways to convey slightly shifting emotional realities/tones/time of day.
“For instance,” he says, “in the first scene, we might not actually do the realistic version of a sunny Saturday afternoon in October, and in the second scene we might not do the realistic version of 1 a.m. in a kitchen with harsh overhead light, but we work to create a distilled sense of those feelings.”
Donahue adds, “We’re using a pretty minimal pallet, fairly stripped of color. And in the transitions, we actually see Josh Barrett change from one son to the next, acknowledging rather than masking the theatricality of it. So, for the transitions, we’ll be doing something completely the opposite of a traditional lights out/down to blue.”
Donahue says, “With the clothes, we’re basically working to flesh out who these people would be in our immediate real world. The clothes are contemporary; and we’ve paid specific attention to the sense of class, and how each person wears/takes care of their clothes.
“With Josh,” he adds, “since he has so many changes that need to take place onstage and in relatively short periods of time, we’re working with a simple base look, and then using layers, different shoes, and changing hair styles to completely transform the overall look for each of the sons.”
Donahue says, “With Ray Dooley, we’re working with one base look, but adjusting scene by scene based on the time of day, how prepared he is for a given confrontation, etc.”
Director Mike Donahue recalls, “I first came to PlayMakers in 2009 to assist on [staging The Life and Adventures of] Nicholas Nickleby for my Drama League Fellowship. I had a fantastic experience here, and really fell in love with the theater and Chapel Hill.”
He adds, “PlayMakers is a real family, one of the only companies of its kind in the country; and they’re one of the regional theaters that’s really taking risks in their programming.
“Chapel Hill has just been a wonderful place to get to come back to every year,” says Mike Donahue. “It’s beautiful, the people are wonderfully welcoming, and there are some really great restaurants here.”
(“I’m a big foodie,” Donahue confesses. “I’ve even hitchhiked with friends from New York just to be able to get biscuits from Sunrise before heading to the airport.)
“I was fortunate to be here last year working with the UNC Professional Actor Training Program on a new Kim Rosenstock play, 99 Ways to F@#k a Swan,” says director Mike Donahue, “and I’ll get to be back later this season working [as associate director] with Joe Haj on The Making of a King: Henry IV & V [Jan. 28-March 4].
“This company has become a real artistic home for me, one I greatly treasure,” says Donahue. “I can’t wait to share our work with you!”
In addition to A Number (Sept. 7-11), written by Caryl Churchill and directed by Mike Donahue, PlayMakers‘ 2011-12 second-stage season includes The Amish Project (Jan. 11-15), written and performed by Jessica Dickey and directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde, and Penelope (April 25-29), written and performed Ellen McLaughlin and directed by Lisa Rothe, with original music by Sarah Kirkland Snider.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 19th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel preview by Grace Tatter: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2011/08/playmakers_stages_prc2_series.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents A NUMBER at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7-10 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $10-$35 ($10 UNC Student Rush Tickets, available one hour before curtain).
BOX OFFICE: 919/962-PLAY or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/843-2311, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.aspx.
NOTE 1: There will be a post-play discussion after each performance with the cast, creative team, and experts on the issues that the play raises.
NOTE 2: There will be wheelchair-accessible seating and assisted-listening devices available at performances. (For details, click http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/specialneeds.aspx.)
The Play: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Number (Wikipedia) and http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm?search_by=show&id=3879 (Internet Off-Broadway Database),
The 2008 TV Movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1010035/ (Internet Movie Database).
Playwright Caryl Churchill: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caryl_Churchill (Wikipedia), http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=4702 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1135663/ (Internet Movie Database).
Director Mike Donahue: http://www.mikemdonahue.com/ (official website).
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