On an unseasonably cold day in July, Tony Estrella, artistic director of the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, says he feels like he’s just stepped into fall. “But tomorrow,” he says, “we’ll all be at the beach in shorts.”
Sinister implications of climate change aside, the brief time warp in the weather patterns is apropos of what’s on Estrella’s mind. The flexibility of time – how it changes, how it bends, what it means and where we fall within it – is one of the recurring themes of the theater’s two season openers: A Number and Far Away by Caryl Churchill (September 12–October 13). Each play seeks to present interesting thought experiments to its players and its patrons, examining what happens in a future that might not be so distant after all. The quandaries are familiar: Are we okay with cloning? How can we simultaneously celebrate and castigate violence? Why is climate change a political issue? How can we stop the maddening march of time?
Estrella says he couldn’t be more thrilled to be presenting the two plays to kick off the Gamm’s 29th season. Offered to audiences one after the other – each play is about an hour in length – the works are still in early design stages, but Estrella is careful to point out that the sense of futurism, or of science fiction, is elegant and subtle rather than evocative of a George Lucas film. “There are naturalistic things going on,” he says. “When you create a future environment, you always have to start in the present and use your imagination to leap forward a bit. We don’t want to feel like it’s too far away for us.”
This is surely because the messages that these plays carry – about time, about self, about the disconnect born of technology, about the acceleration towards catastrophe that may await us – are meant to hit audiences at their core. Estrella says that by connecting to the emotional center of the plays (A Number is, in essence, a father/son drama, while Far Away shows us a wider array of characters who are all undeniably human apart from their surreal moments), viewers will no doubt be able to execute the imaginative leap that Churchill requests of them. The two one-acts will take place on a singular set designed by Michael McGarty. “We’re trying to have our cake and eat it too,” says Estrella about connecting the physical worlds of the plays. “And I think we’ll be able to if we do our jobs – make them seem like entirely different worlds and yet one.”
The plot of A Number harkens back to classic dramas from O’Neil and Miller, says Estrella. Several decades before the beginning of the play, a father engages a geneticist to clone his first-born, but then comes to find out that there are three of these carbon copies walking around. Beyond the physical identity, though, the sons hold mysterious divergences in their DNA somehow. A Number lets us access a world of disturbing truths, as well, via a young girl’s window. The things she sees make her frantic, while her wiser aunt, who seems to have seen it all, tries to explain away the frightening sights she’s seen. It doesn’t take much to understand where Churchill is going with this one.
Estrella says he isn’t aware of any other instances of these two plays being performed in concert with one another, and that it was a coup for the Gamm to get the rights to perform both. While they have two undeniably separate storylines, Estrella says that he expects the plays to “talk to each other,” to “tell one, powerful story with the both of them.”
The plays will be further brought together by Estrella himself, who is acting in A Number and directing Far Away. What attracted Estrella to A Number was partially the acting challenge it presented: he must play three different clones of one father’s son across five different scenes. For him to direct Far Away, which Estrella billed as some of the “edgier material” for which the Gamm has come to be known, seemed an inevitable choice. “I feel a special kind of connecting [to this type of material], knowing that we’re asking more of the audience – whether in form or content – and I want to be responsible for those plays,” he says.
If Estrella and his cohort make good on their promises, audiences will certainly be challenged, but not befuddled. Estrella says they can expect to be moved and to be engaged in dialogue about identity and change, about family and fate. “I think these plays are going to really resonate with people emotionally,” he says. “It’s like any of the great, allegorical stories we tell each other that begin ‘Once upon a time…’”