Thursday, January 19, 2017

Love and Information at UBC

This semester I'm teaching Caryl Churchill's 2012 play Love and Information as part of a course on contemporary epic theatre at SFU. So I was pleased to discover that UBC Theatre was staging the work at the Frederic Wood Theatre this month. Helmed by MFA Directing candidate Lauren Taylor, the production is an ambitious and highly theatrical take on Churchill's elliptically dialectical staging of the relationship between knowledge and desire in the twenty-first century.

As with most of Churchill's work, Love and Information is a radical experiment in theatrical form. The play is made up of seven sections, each with seven scenes, plus a "last scene" called "Facts," which takes the form of a quiz, and which Taylor cleverly stages as a surreal game show that, with its eye-popping colour palette and fantastical costumes, looks like a diversion straight out of Panem in The Hunger Games. The scenes range in length from a few lines to several pages of dialogue. However, we are given no clues to setting, few stage directions, and the characters are not named or described in any way. But we are told that the characters must be different in each scene, which without the necessary strategy of actors (in this case an 18-strong team of very talented UBC BFA acting students) taking on five or six or more roles, would require a cast of more than 100. Additionally, Churchill instructs that the scenes in each section can be staged in any order. Finally, at the end of the playtext she includes several "random" scenes. Most of these (someone sneezing, someone reading bits of gossip from a magazine, multiplication tables or gene sequences, a display of sign language or morse code) are optional. However, the scenes she labels "Depression" are, in Churchill's words, an "essential part of the play," requiring one character to remain unresponsive as a succession of incomplete and banally offered non-sequiturs are articulated by someone else. Taylor's very smart choice for these scenes is to have each of the lines spoken in voice-over as a succession of cast members sit slumped on a chair downstage left, their morose and impassive faces projected in turn on a scrim behind them via a live video feed (the projection designer was Stefan Zubovic, who also did the lighting).

Because all of the "information" we get in each of the scenes in the play comes via the dialogue, a creative team is afforded much liberty in its interpretation of the different conversations and interactions. Taylor exploits this to maximum effect, playing with gender and setting and costuming and sound design to create fully-realized and often surprising mini-worlds, opening up a window onto these characters' domestic or professional or social lives, sometimes in the space of less than a minute. For example, "Lab," in which one character is explaining to another what he does with the baby chickens' brains which he injects with radioactive liquid and then dissects, is set in what I took to be the waiting area of a fancy restaurant, with the lab technician clearly oblivious to the fact that he is failing abysmally at seducing his date with the description of his work. "Spies," which unfolds as a conversation about the misinformation fed to the media and the public about the reasons for invading Iraq in 2003 (something that Churchill has allegorized before in Drunk Enough to Say I Love You), was staged as a debate between two spectators at a hockey game. And it was an inspired choice to have the dialogue in the super short "Decision," from section 6, delivered while the characters, ballroom dance partners, are engaged in a tango. And yet as much as I admired the deep thought that clearly went into constructing a back story for each of the play's scenes, and the relationship between the characters within them, I couldn't help feel that many of them were over-produced, with costume and prop and sound design choices often detracting from what I read as some of Churchill's more instrumental and frankly transactional exchanges of information between characters. For example, in Section 5, I'm not sure that anything fruitful was gained by having the "Children" scene (in which one character quizzes another about his infertility) preceded by a long live karaoke sequence. (While this production runs a compact and intermissionless 90 minutes, it still felt that the pacing could have been tighter, especially in the scene changes.)

There is a reason, I think, that the characters in Love and Information are presented as ciphers, bits of interchangeable binary code that, in the larger montage of scenes, form part of an algorithmic equation that suggests that everything, including people and feelings, is now data, and that it's not a question any longer of what we know but how we know--and maybe even more importantly who knows and who we know. This comes out in the one optional random scene that Taylor chooses to include, "Genes," in which a sequence of DNA codons unspools on a downstage scrim as the cast walks back and forth across the stage behind it. In this regard, I wonder what it might have meant for this production if a more uniformly coherent and, dare I say, clinical design aesthetic had been chosen for each of the scenes? Then, too, what additional discoveries might have transpired had Taylor taken up Churchill's invitation to mix up the order of the scenes in each section? The choices this play affords are on one level understandably overwhelming. At the same time, as Taylor states in her director's notes, being overloaded with choice is part of what Churchill is exploring in this play. Sifting through the structural rubik's cube that is this play to find its emotional core means not trying to resolve the contradictory pull between love and information, but rather isolating the feeling or epiphanic sensation or experience of the former amid all the memes that comprise the latter.


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