Performance diary: Lincoln Center Festival productions of A DISAPPEARING NUMBER and TEOREMA

July 20, 2010

July 16 – A Disappearing Number, Simon McBurney’s 2007 play with his company Complicite at the Lincoln Center Festival, is a dense and heady piece about mathematics, based on G. H. Hardy’s memoir A Mathematician’s Apology (which McBurney learned about from Michael Ondaatje). It centers on Hardy’s relationship with Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young unschooled Indian math genius who developed some fantastic and very advanced proofs. (The main one demonstrated is called the Riemann zeta function, which proves that 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 … = -1/12.) This historical narrative plays off a parallel fictional story of a British female mathematician and her relationship with an Indian-American hedge fund manager. It’s very theatrical in typical Complicite style. It opens with a wonderful scene of Ruth (Saskia Reeves) giving a lecture on numerical sequences, and then Paul Bhattacharjee (playing the character of Aninda Rao, a colleage of Ruth’s) demonstrating all the ways we’re looking at an artificial environment – sliding walls, doorway to nowhere, revolving screen – actors playing parts – which of course only heightens our ability to be transported through the parallel stories of Hardy and Ramanujan (who died of TB at age 33) and Ruth and Al, with video and shadow plays, and music by Nitin Sawhney, both pre-recorded and played live on tabla. Of course, the music and the couple of dance sections operate on additive principles separate from but related to the mathematics. Equations fill the screen and the stage, much talk of infinity, diverging and converging sequences, the stories traveling back and forth in time, passages repeated for poetic purposes. The refrain that caught me: “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. And beauty is the first test.”

Andy was completely mesmerized and rendered ecstatic by the sheer math-geekiness of the play. I was tracking all the Robert Lepage-like transformations of the stage and searching for the emotional underpinnings of the biographical narrative and the philosophical argument. And it all came together in the final image for me. McBurney sets up symmetry as a key feature – in nature, in math (infinite possibilities on either side of the equation, positive and negative, and between any two numbers), and in art. Early on Ramanujan is scribbling his wild intuitive proofs on a handheld blackboard out of which suddenly pours a stream of sand, or salt, that piles around his feet. It brought to my mind Tibetan sand mandalas and suggested another iteration of the show’s theme of the interconnectedness of all things, the Upanishads and Walt Whitman, stars and snowflakes as infinite as numbers. And at the end, Ruth has died of a brain aneurysm on a train on her way to a conference in Madras, a few years after miscarrying her child with Al. Al, who’s brought her suitcase of books to toss into the Cauvery, “the Ganges of the South,” where Indians throw the ashes of the dead. Ruth appears, opens her purse, and pours out a stream of sand, salt, ashes. And I got it: infinity is the place where love meets loss. At the curtain call, I was in tears, feeling the eternal infinite of my own losses, and Andy was beaming with joy, as excited as I’ve ever seen him at the theater. He even bought the script in the lobby afterwards.

July 17 –
We got on the ferry to Governors Island with Mr. David Zinn and had a very pleasant 20-minute stroll to the remote location where Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam performed Teorema, communing briefly with Les Waters (above, modelling DZ-designed tattoos) and Melanie Joseph before going in. I have to laugh, just contemplating the radical juxtaposition of a former military installation hosting a Lincoln Center Festival production of a Dutch adaptation (with English subtitles) of an Italian novel/film by Pasolini. From the minute we walked in, we were clearly in an Ivo van Hove production – the three-walled box set with industrial gray carpeting and modular stylized box furniture bore a family resemblance to van Hove’s productions of Hedda Gabler and The Misanthrope at New York Theater Workshop as well as Opening Night at BAM (all designed by van Hove’s resident designer, partner, and chief collaborator Jan Versweyveld). [I didn’t see van Hove’s production of Cocteau’s Le voix humaine, which must have played in the same location during last year’s New Island Festival.) Playing on a plasma screen at the rear: an episode of Meercat Manor. Soundtrack: a kitschy and then dementedly repetitive loop of the Supremes singing “The Happening.” Hi, Ivo! I love you!

Teorema is Pasolini’s famous 1968 film starring Terence Stamp (above, at the peak of his youthful good looks) as a mysterious handsome stranger who visits an upper middle-class Milanese family and has sex with everyone in the household: maid, mother, son, daughter, father. He brings to all of them a new joy, a liberation Then he leaves, as suddenly as he appears, and each family member is left struggling – and mostly failing — to integrate this liberation into an ongoing life. When I first saw the film, in college in Boston, I thought Teorema was the stranger’s name, and I found the pansexual aspect of the film titillating beyond belief. Seeing it again on DVD recently, in the course of giving myself an ad hoc course on the complete filmography of Pasolini (a great great inspired poetic perverse political filmmaker), I finally understood the film as a kind of schematic essay (teorema = theorem). Yes, in the late sixties, questions about sex and sexuality and their representation in the cinema were very much in the air and constituted the basis for a kind of political dialogue. But as a Marxist, Pasolini was very interested in class-consciousness and how it plays out both in sexual relationships and in artistic representation of history, religion, and erotic life. He also had the guts to shoot his films from an unapologetically gay point of view – just watch how his camera lingers over the crotches of men, the cinema of cruising, in a lusty but not especially pornographic way.
Van Hove’s adaptation (created in collaboration with Willem Bruls) follows the story very closely, though the text presumably comes from the novel Pasolini wrote after making the film (whose dialogue is quite sparse). It is indeed a parable of enlightenment, a drab and unhappy clan exposed to a spiritually infused erotic force that could be seen as God, could be seen as sacred intimacy, could be seen as political salvation (Communism? Obama’s presidency?). The family is white; the guest (played by Chico Kenzari) is some ethnic cocktail, visually signifying Other. Very different from the movie and yet fittingly, the stage production is almost perfectly Brechtian – cool, beautiful, unhurried. The set exposes everything like a laboratory. There is a score performed by a musical ensemble named Bl!ndman, a quartet (three women and one man) who take their places at the top of the show at turntable/consoles in the four corners of the set, facing away from center and one another, fiddling with knobs to produce a drony electronic underscore to the first scene. Later, the musicians sit in a square facing one another to play some Beethoven and Webern as well as original music by Eric Steichim. The actors speak in guttural Dutch while the English subtitles appear in stark black-and-white on four screens around the space. Knowing the story, I was completely absorbed and fascinated by how the production played out the Guest’s sexual coupling with each family member, how each shook off his or her lethargy in the glow of his unconditional love, and then how each one dealt with the aftermath of enlightenment – the mother tries to reproduce her connection with him and slides into sleazy nymphomania; the daughter goes crazy; the son kills himself; the maid (the proletarian, already disposed toward a religious sense of things) embraces the rapture (see below); and the father struggles hardest with the existential challenge of surrendering his ego and material self.

I was thrilled and ecstatic when it was done. Andy was bored…out…of…his…skull. Hated it. David was somewhere in between. Walking back to the boat, we had a good if awkward conversation about our various responses. I marveled at how Teorema was essentially a variation on the same themes that propelled A Disappearing Number – encountering a beautiful idea, a beautiful theory (as in Angels in America), and then trying to incorporate it into your life, which turns out to be an arduous spiritual task. I loved being present for that investigation. But clearly I’m in the minority on this one.

It was a beautiful night, the hot day cooling down to a peachy sunset, Manhattan putting on a glittering light show as we sailed back across the river and headed to Suenos for yummy Mexican food and margaritas.

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