“A Number,” a 2002 play written by Caryl Churchill exploring the repercussions of human cloning and humanity itself, opened at the Staller Center for the Arts on Nov. 2 to begin a two-week run produced by the theatre arts department. Even for people who are not typically fans of science-fiction, the performance in this two-actor play draws the audience into an intimate relationship.
“The science behind this play is influential, but it is the relationships that are intuitive,” the play’s director and department lecturer, Steven Marsh, said. “And on stage, the intuitive always shows better.”
In 1997, Scottish scientists working at the Roslin Institute, affiliated with the University of Edinburgh, created the first cloned mammal Dolly the sheep. In turn, this achievement created a stream of ethical commentary and criticism on the topic of cloning. Just like any experiment performed on an animal, the bigger question was, could it be done to humans?
This was the question that began Marsh’s production of “A Number.” At the start, the audience watches clips from videos about the ethics of cloning and the psychological debate over nature versus nurture.
The play immerses the audience into the lives of a family influenced by cloning. A man named Salter, portrayed by senior theatre arts major Frank Murdocco, has his five-year-old son Bernard secretly cloned into another copy after trauma left him a fractured child. He sends the original Bernard, played by sophomore political science major Digby Baker-Porazinski, to a clinical home and fathers the new Bernard, also played by Baker-Porazinski. The secret becomes known to both his sons 35 years later, and the turmoil begins.
The performances of the actors drive the play, as all of the major actions happen off-screen. The intimate and nuanced relationship Murdocco and Baker-Porazinski have built together shows on stage as they not only bring the characters to life, but the themes of the play.
Even though clones are talked about in every scene of this five-scene play, the central exploration is the concept of choice.
“Something we talked about a lot is how Churchill wrote a play about clones without making it about clones,” Murdocco said. “It’s about the choices that we make. We make choices to fix our problems, but then those choices affect someone else’s identity.”
Marsh’s set is minimalist and purposeful. The flooring on the stage is covered in white tiles, making the entire theater feel as uncomfortable as a hospital room. This atmosphere compliments the congested emotions of the characters, none of whom are capable of expressing how they feel properly, showing backed-up emotions during one scene and noisy perturbation the next.
Between scenes is when the audience has a chance to soak in the story more slowly. Fluid segues highlight the solitary actions of a single character at a time. In one of the segues, we watch the original Bernard struggle to feel accepted by social groups as he copes with his broken self-identity.
Every scene is watching a surgery unfold behind the mirror of an operating theater. Veiled behind the slashing dialogue is the strife of a father-and-son relationship. For someone who had neither seen nor read the play, the dialogue can be too assuming and volatile at times. But if you don’t get lost in the minutia, the emotion in the performances is strong enough to lead the audience into where the plot is headed.
There are moments when both sons get right into their father’s face and attack him with questions he cannot answer. They are caught in the consequences of a decision made out of their control, causing them to simultaneously lose their identities at the realization of Salter’s actions. Now the sons must draw blood and attack the idea of their father and of themselves. At the same time, the father is trapped in a decision he deemed was for the best. He wanted to have his son be normal again.
While they step aside at times to reflect on the shift in their identities, the Bernards cope with their situation by fighting their father verbally. The climax of the play takes the original Bernard into a violent rage that changes the relationship of the three characters permanently. Salter can only react to this by doing what his sons did to him for the entire play: asking fast-paced questions about Bernard’s choice.
There are also moments when this fast-paced dialogue and movement prevents the audience from getting a chance to linger in the aftermath of an emotional peak. At the end of scene two, the original Bernard demands to be acknowledged and he forcefully tells Salter to look him in the eye. Just as soon as the audience can start to let this moment settle, the stage lighting fades to black and the transition into the new scene begins.
This leaves you wanting the characters to have a good, long look at each other. While this doesn’t happen, we watch Salter have a good look at himself in one of the segues. Mirrors, held up by the stagehands, dance around Salter as he reflects on his choices and where they have left his sons.
Using mirrors and reflections as a motif in the segues, the production team allows the audience to peer into the fractured identities of all the main characters.
“What would you do if you saw someone that looked someone exactly like you,” asked Marsh. “Well you do that every day when you look in the mirror.”
“A Number” runs at the Staller Center until Nov. 12. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday.