Sunday, 23 April 2017

Long Division is the curve of math made human
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night &
those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Editor's note : As we will be unable to attend this week's show by Pi Theatre, the following is a redux version of BLR's November 18, 2016 review of the play from its original Gateway Theatre co-production. The principal actors and production team are the same.
N.B. See Addendum #2 at bottom for Peter Dickinson's update about what changes have been made to the script for this Vancouver remount. 

The Pi cast whose interactions form a clever, compelling & chilling Moebius strip of life.

From the footlights : You know the theory of "six degrees of separation". Roughly put, that total strangers who meet anywhere in the world will in short order discover some manner of common connection between them. 

SFU Professor Peter Dickinson's Long Division is analogous. A kind of Moebius strip of human experience -- that half-twisted connected loop you learned in Grade 5 science class -- such is what links the show's seven characters to a single tragic event that pulls them all together and tears them apart at the same time.

As the Pi Theatre Productions promo describes the show, "the three male and four female characters use number theory, geometry and logic to trace their connection to each other and to the moment that changed their lives." 

According to Mr. Dickinson's blog, the show involves over 80 converging cues that link the show's sound, lighting, stage activity and video/projections. In addition "there is the fact that movement in Long Division is operating both on the level of traditional theatre blocking and in relation to an additional choreographic score." 

Pi calls the show "a multimedia, physical theatre play about the mathematics of human connection". 

How it's all put together :  Physical theatre relies on the motions of the actors to demonstrate what they're talking about, and what they're also not saying. In the choreography of Lesley Telford, the actors intercross and dissect and bridge one another in rhythmic spiccato marches and jaunts to unmarked spots on a diminutive 15 x 5 meter stage surface. Their gesticulations are often like pinocchio marionettes done in syncopated jerkiness. 

Their actions are semaphores to reflect, I think, the angularity of the serial mathematical propositions being bandied about in the dialogue. Clearly the choreographic debt to Marcel Marceau's famed "art of silence" mime technique is also immense. For the actors, a lifetime of doing party charades would certainly warrant a 1, not a 0, in this binary universe of ours.

Sequentially the actors present their characters' stories through extended monologues while miming and intersecting with the others. Scads of mathematical theories are reviewed or mentioned. Dizzyingly so. Just like Grade 11 discovery math was, is and always will be to many. 

But in linear terms, much of the focus really boils down to the notion of probability. The "point" of play is perhaps best expressed by the character Lucy who speaks for millions of Canadians when she talks of our national lottery ticket mania : "It's a mix of risk and certainty," she says, "the fulfilling of expectations : even when you know what's going to happen, you're still surprised. It's never about beating the odds, it's about not succumbing to them" she says to end Act 1. 

What the show bring to the stage :  This script is ingenious, no question. A brainiac romp more different by far than any of the other 170-odd plays I've seen the past four years. The descriptors noted above in the Pi promotional notes are accurate. 

A humanities student mostly, I nevertheless had two favourite alt-subjects in high school : geometry and physics. Geometry for its postulates and theorems so like philosophy. Physics for its mix of space, time and energy -- also akin to philosophy. 

Fair enough. But over the course of the night the audience is introduced to three or more dozen mathematicians and their various propositions dealing with cardinal, ordinate, nominal numbers etc. etc. School principal Grace Ingram (Linda Quibell), herself an unsuccessful English teacher, says this about these nameless, faceless digits she's become accustomed to pushing to and fro as an education bureaucrat : "You can count with them and you can count on them." Hmnnn. An ex-education bureaucrat myself, back in '75 I remember the school district comptroller -- when directed to project the cost of teacher salary increases -- asked : "And just what would you like the number to look like, pray tell?"

Along the way primarily two contemporary social subjects are investigated : bullying and bigotry. Both of which lead to a calamitous and dreadful outcome at the local high school. 

Linkages are made to numbers and what they mean in certain religious and number theory and astrologic-type contexts, but in the end the appropriate algorithms and calculus play themselves out with a kind of inevitability. The seven interactive agents all become "an empty set that contains all there is, gathering all our hurts together".

Acting pin-spots : Crisp and keen performances by each and every actor on the snuggish Gateway Studio B stage, a house that seats just under 100 people. [The Annex venue of the current production would appear to hold an additional 50 or more.] 

Best lines by playwright Dickinson are reserved for Lucy Ganardi (Melissa Oei) whose character is an aspiring actress who to make ends meet has to sling beer for Jo Garofsky (Jennifer Lines) at her downtown bar. Lucy quite gets the math jones around probability and Moebius-style outcomes that are the central conceit of this script -- in the end we all wind up where we started -- but she believes striving for happiness is a better goal than mesmerizing over numbers in this curve of time we live in.

When the inevitable "Do you believe in god?" question arises amongst this casual assembly of agnostics, Islamics, gays and straights, I was put to mind of Stephen Hawking's response to the question : "I believe in the power that creates and expands the universe," he said. Amen. A physics / philosophy hook that resonates more with me, personally, than an extended and at times microscopic examination of integers and the true mathematical meaning of "zero". (Re-scripting this play through the lens of quantum physics would be a hoot!)

Who gonna like : As noted above, a "more different play" in Vancouver I've not seen (though I know the PuSH and Fringe festivals also offer much avant garde postmodern stuff that punches through the 4th wall and plops itself boldly into the audience's collective and often unsuspecting lap). 

There's a whiz-kid element to this canny and utterly idiosyncratic script that folks who, quote, "hate all things math" would likely find somewhat off-putting. Without question the two women in my family would be front-&-centre in that category. 

But for lovers of unique, inventive, and novel small-stage scripts and drama, as obviously do I, once again Pi Theatre Productions brings to the fore a show filled with zest and imagination galore -- not only in the acting but in the production originality of lights, set and math equation projections as well. A night I will remember many moons from now no question.

Particulars : Produced by Pi Theatre Productions originally in collaboration with Gateway Theatre (November 2016). Performed at Annex Theatre, 823 Sey6mour Stree, Vancouver. From April 26-30 [six performances]. Run-time 100 minutes including intermission.  Schedule & tickets for both evening and matinee shows by phone @ Pi office, 604.872.1861 or via Pi Theatre.

Creative Team : Playwright Peter Dickinson.  Director Richard Wolfe (Artistic Director Pi Theatre).  Assistant Director Keltie Forsyth.  Choreographer Lesley Telford.  Composer Owen Belton.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Costume Designer Connie Hosie.  Lighting Designer Jergus Oprsal.  Projection Designer Jamie Nesbitt.  Production Manager Jayson Mclean.  Stage Manager Jethelo E. Cabilete.  Dramaturg DD Kugler.

Performers :  Anousha Alamian (Naathim Zaidi).  Jay Clift (Reid Hamilton).  Nicco Lorenzo Garcia (Paul Vinoray).  Jennifer Lines (Jo Garofsky).  Melissa Oei (Lucy Gunardi). Linda Quibell (Grace Ingram).  Kerry Sandomirsky (Alice Evans).

Addendum :  In his November blog, playwright Dickinson noted : "Three and a half weeks of rehearsal plus one workshop week on the script plus four odd years of writing and revising and dramaturging the original idea : all to get to this point. When you balance the run of the show (even including the remount at the Annex in April) against the length of time for its development, it seems an unfair equation. But I can live with the math."

And from the original program notes, further observations by Mr. Dickinson : "I didn't set out to write a play about math. But the story I wanted to tell -- about seven random strangers connected by tragedy -- seemed to demand it. Math became a way for my characters to abstract an event that was too painful to confront by other means. In the course of my research I discovered that, as the 'science of patterns', there is a reason why we often turn to math to account for the mysteries of our universe. I also discovered that our own relationship to the universe, and to each other, can only ever be additive : 0 + 1. Likewise in the theatre one can never go it alone...[folks were] willing to take a risk on a quirky play about how people divide into each other. If, for better or worse, theatre is partly a numbers game, I can only say that in my case those numbers have aligned in a very special way."

Addendum #2

Long Division x 2, from Peter Dickinson's blogsite

Since Tuesday I've been hanging out at Playwright's Theatre Centre along with the original cast and crew of Long Division as we prepare for a "refreshed remount" of the Pi Theatre show at the Annex on Seymour Street beginning next Wednesday. It is such a gift to be given the opportunity to revisit the work with this talented team. With a bit of distance from the first production at the Gateway in November, and in dialogue with director Richard Wolfe, I had made some cuts and tweaks to the script, which was distributed to everyone in March. In rehearsals we've been making some further adjustments, with a focus especially on smoothing out and making more organic the transitions between the choral scenes and individual characters' monologues.

Choreographer Lesley Telford, who is busy with her own show at The Dance Centre (on through this evening), popped into the studio yesterday to help adjust a couple of the movement sequences. The changes were exactly what was needed and it was fantastic to see not just how on board the actors were with the new material, but also how quickly they were able to absorb it into their bodies. When we started this second go-round on Tuesday I think everyone was a bit trepidatious about how much of the original movement score they'd remembered. But with the aid of video documentation and each other's kinetic memories, and with a lot of counted repetitions, the sequences came back incredibly quickly to the actors, and watching them yesterday during our first complete run through you would have thought they'd been doing this continuously since November rather than having had a hiatus of four months.

Tickets for the show can be purchased here. I probably won't be blogging again about the process until after we open. In the meantime, here's a selfie I took the other day in front of one of the bus shelter posters advertising the play around the city. Linda Quibell, who plays Grace, commented yesterday that the image is a bit CSI-y. That's perhaps not a bad analogy given the mystery that has to be unravelled in the play...

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