A slick combination of spittle and snot runs down Tony Estrella’s lips, a thin string of the stuff dangling off his chin. Sitting on a modern white ottoman, chest low to his thighs, hands on his knees, Estrella shivers like a beaten dog, and his eyes stare at, through and past the audience, into some far off memory now too close for comfort. Even as Jim O’Brien drunkenly stumbles around the white-walled room, spitting and shouting on and on about his woe-is-me life, Estrella remains detached, both there and elsewhere - a theatrical element that runs deep through A Number, the first half of the Gamm’s current double-billed production.
To give a brief overview, Caryl Churchill’s A Number delves into the idea of a father (Jim O’Brien) having his son (Tony Estrella) cloned, only to later discover that there exists more than twenty of those clones. The play investigates the all-too-existential question of self value: what does it mean to be you if there are so many yous walking around? Moreover, does the existence of so many yous damage your inherent sense of uniqueness?
Every scene takes place in O’Brien’s home, his white-walled, white-furnished castle that reeks of forced perfection - a trait overflowing into O’Brien’s clothes (sweater vest, button-up shirt, wire-framed glasses, khakis, dress socks, dress shoes) and his well-manicured face. The man oozes western civilization and seems right from the start to be an inherent Good Guy. But of course the facade comes crumbling down and O’Brien’s acting brings out the subtle alcoholic-turned-sober-turned-alcoholic evil of a father bent on cloning his son for the sole purpose of a second chance.
And oh how Estrella complements O’Brien. Changing appearance and body language between scenes according to which cloned son he is portraying, Estrella proves himself multi-faceted and capable of an adaptation unseen in the average theatrical experience. He moves from an enraged and abused son to a calm and humorous one so quickly, with such fluidity, it takes a moment to realize that a new character is still the same Estrella. It’s both a testament to his abilities and to the Gamm’s successful experimentation in theatrics, for although Estrella appears on stage, the audience assumes a separate cloned Estrella is offstage somewhere. It gives the play a living, breathing sense of life.
While Churchill’s A Number stands on its own intellectual and exploratory merits, seeing O’Brien and Estrella work their magic as a father and son(s) caught in an existential crisis makes the performance worth attention, and the Gamm’s intimate setting is ideal for witnessing such a colossal clash between these two resident theatre titans.
But the fun only begins with A Number, as after a quick intermission Far Away takes the stage, with the white-walled castle becoming a wood-paneled hovel accompanied by a larger cast and a larger existential topic: what happens when war forces a blissful ignorant into picking sides?
The story follows Joan (Marianna Bassham) from child- to adulthood. Raised in the aforementioned hovel in some anonymous war-torn country that could be America or Russia or any such superpower, Young Joan (Lauren Durkin) witnesses death and murder on the daily, and her questions about the incidents lead to lies and deceit from her guardian, Harper (Casey Seymour Kim). So her attention redirects away. She focuses on her life, her hobbies, her passions, ignoring the world around her decaying into chaos.
Soon she goes to college to study Hats, an academic and artistic field in which the artist creates hats for a weekly parade. Here, Churchill reveals her love for the abstract, as this universe’s definition of a parade involves prisoners of war wearing silly hats and performing a final public walk to the gas chambers - the audience’s laughter at the situation’s absurdity is a mirror for the attitudes of the in-universe’s onlookers - after which the POWs’ remains are burned and the best hat of the parade is placed in a museum. And all Joan cares about is getting her hat into the museum - a blinded conviction well portrayed by Bassham’s enthusiastic, even bubbly focus on her hat creation process.
Even as Joan agrees with her coworker Todd’s (Alexander Platt) criticisms of the hat industry, her tunneled vision remains solely on the literal creation of a hat (why aren’t hat makers paid more? why do they not make more hats? why are there not more parades?), rather than questioning why those hats must be placed on POWs or why those POWs are even part of the parade. And in these moments, Bassham’s acting somehow depicts Joan as both adult and child (confident and yet hyper, career-driven and yet a waif), a brilliant amalgamation of the two that creates cringe-worthy and humorous moments at Joan’s expense.
Similar to A Number, though, the fragile veil around Joan shatters, thrusting her into a world at war and without any hats into which she can pour her attention. She must choose sides. She must fight. She must survive. She must navigate the murky who’s-on-who’s-side diplomatic waters without any knowledge as to why one side should be favored over the other, because all her life she’s been fed lies and untruths and a superficial artistic endeavor designed around blind patriotism, blind ambition, blind citizens. The resulting bewilderment concludes in an ending that bounces between hilarious and humiliating, stopping on each side long enough to allow for Bassham, Platt and Kim to express themselves in a zany and all-too-true depiction of naivete trying to make sense of a war so long ignored and so out of their control.
Now, while Far Away proved far more thought provoking and ambitious than A Number, it also proved the less satisfying of the two plays, as such a large, heavy topic could have benefited from more exploration - a critique aimed at Churchill’s writing, not the Gamm’s depiction. The scenes sometimes last only minutes, maybe even seconds, before rushing through both time and space to the next glimpse at Joan’s struggles. This rush of energy causes the theme to become blurred and buried, and an audience must pay careful attention to every word and action so as to fully grasp what Churchill wants to get across.
But therein lies the beauty of seeing A Number and Far Away in one sitting: they challenge the audience. Are people defined by their physical uniqueness? Or are physical appearances superficial in defining an individual? If so, why laugh at the POWs wearing silly hats? Why find Joan’s ignorance funny? Why accept that war is funny and watching someone struggle through it is hilarious? These questions, though difficult to face, are what make the Gamm’s A Number & Far Away such a stunning production, as the lack of a gap between audience and on-stage acting enhances the intensity of Churchill’s too-close-for-comfort questions. Plus, the Gamm’s actors are as sharp as ever, providing an unforgettable experience for both the theatrical layman and the theatre aficionado. Everything about the production is utterly fantastic. The Gamm’s A Number & Far Away runs from now until October 13.