Take A Number

Number one: The Rep picks a winner for its Studio series.

In pre-show remarks prior to the opening-night performance of Caryl Churchill's scarifying A Number, the obligatory admonition to turn off cell phones was followed by this final instruction from director Susan Gregg: "Buckle in." It was good advice. This tight, taut offering in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio series is provocative and absorbing for every power-packed second of its brief but intense 55-minute life. The evening is a theatrical roller coaster that twists and turns and churns. And at hour's end you're so exhilarated, you might even find yourself wishing that the actors would take a brief intermission and then repeat the piece.

At the outset, a middle-aged chap (named Bernard in the press release, though he is only identified in the playbill as B; go figure) is confronting his father about the discovery that he, B, is but one of "a number" of cloned sons. As the evening accelerates, we meet other sons, and in classic mystery manner even have some fun determining which is the true-blue, red-blooded heir to Salter, the father who initiated all this mayhem. "There are things I did," Salter acknowledges, "that are not trivial." That's putting it mildly.

When A Number was first staged in 2002, the world was caught up in Dolly-mania — Dolly being the Scottish ewe that was the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult somatic cell. She died at age six in 2003. Surely Dolly — and all the Dollys still to come — were much on Churchill's mind. But cloning is only the backdrop for her play. A more prevalent theme here would seem to be "human" (for lack of a more accurate word that does not yet exist) relationships in an era when human cloning is possible. Churchill's bleak imagination projects the Cain and Abel story into a future world and spins an all-new nightmare unnervingly similar to the ancient tale we already know.

Send in the clones: Anderson Matthews (left) and Jim Butz 
(right).
Jerry Naunheim Jr
Send in the clones: Anderson Matthews (left) and Jim Butz (right).

Details

Through February 4. Tickets are $32.50 to $50 (rush seats available for students and seniors, $8 and $10, respectively, 30 minutes before showtime). Call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.
The Emerson Studio in the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves.

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This two-actor, multiple-character assault makes for such compelling drama, it's no surprise that top performers have been drawn to it. The original London production starred Michael Gambon as the father and Daniel Craig as the sons; off-Broadway those characters were played by Sam Shepard (in his first New York acting role in 30 years) and Dallas Roberts. But it's hard to imagine anyone being any more effective than the two-man cast at the Rep. Under the seemingly relentless direction of Gregg (who last year also channeled ferocity into Yellowman, another stark two-character play) Anderson Matthews and Jim Butz deliver a full-frontal attack.

Butz has the showier "three faces of Eve" role. In one scene he personifies innocent confusion; in the next he emanates Neanderthal terror. "Look in my eyes," the bullying son instructs his father. "Keep looking." We should all keep peering into Butz's eyes, because that's where the evening's labyrinthine changes can be charted. Initially they are perplexed and inquiring; next they become as lethal as grenades; soon they will be as bright as the blue socks one of the sons likes to wear.

Matthews is every regional theater's dream actor. He has an almost-instinctive understanding of the dimensions of the Studio space and calibrates his performance to fill every crevice without going to excess. It makes no matter where you sit; Matthews' performance will seek you out and chill you. At the curtain call, as these two professional actors bow to each other, you can feel the palpable admiration and mutual respect that the onstage characters may lack but which is always here, out of sight, undergirding and sustaining this truly disturbing yet wonderfully theatrical parable about a perilous tomorrow. In pre-show remarks prior to the opening-night performance of Caryl Churchill's scarifying A Number, the obligatory admonition to turn off cell phones was followed by this final instruction from director Susan Gregg: "Buckle in." It was good advice. This tight, taut offering in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio series is provocative and absorbing for every power-packed second of its brief but intense 55-minute life. The evening is a theatrical roller coaster that twists and turns and churns. And at hour's end you're so exhilarated, you might even find yourself wishing that the actors would take a brief intermission and then repeat the piece.

At the outset, a middle-aged chap (named Bernard in the press release, though he is only identified in the playbill as B; go figure) is confronting his father about the discovery that he, B, is but one of "a number" of cloned sons. As the evening accelerates, we meet other sons, and in classic mystery manner even have some fun determining which is the true-blue, red-blooded heir to Salter, the father who initiated all this mayhem. "There are things I did," Salter acknowledges, "that are not trivial." That's putting it mildly.

When A Number was first staged in 2002, the world was caught up in Dolly-mania — Dolly being the Scottish ewe that was the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult somatic cell. She died at age six in 2003. Surely Dolly — and all the Dollys still to come — were much on Churchill's mind. But cloning is only the backdrop for her play. A more prevalent theme here would seem to be "human" (for lack of a more accurate word that does not yet exist) relationships in an era when human cloning is possible. Churchill's bleak imagination projects the Cain and Abel story into a future world and spins an all-new nightmare unnervingly similar to the ancient tale we already know.

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