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A Number at BackStage Theatre Company | Theater review

The emotions are all too human in Caryl Churchill’s harrowing cloning drama.

Photograph: Heath Hays
Patrick Blashill and Tony Bozzuto in A Number at BackStage Theatre Company

Caryl Churchill’s neat but untidy cloning conversation piece, written in 2002 at the height of the Dolly-the-sheep media frenzy, is no sci-fi affair. The playwright instead uses the conceit of human cloning as a keenly focused new lens for viewing parent-child relations. At the play’s opening, a young man (Tony Bozzuto) is telling his father (Patrick Blashill) about the unsettling news he’s just received from the hospital: There are more of him out there. The revelation that his son has genetic twins scattered about—not just one or two, but “a number”—unnerves the father, but in a different way; his first move is to assign blame, to anyone but himself.

In BackStage’s production, played out on scenic designer Angela M. Campos’s claustrophobic, hexagon-shaped stage, Blashill is nicely understated as a once-failed dad who wanted to scrap it and start over again—surely an instinct many parents have felt at desperate moments, even if most wouldn’t dream of following through. Bozzuto sharply differentiates three characters who share the same chromosomes: One is timid and passive, another coldly violent, carefree and confident, each with his own subtly discrete physicality and vocal quality. Director Karen Kessler leaves a bit too much air in each of the play’s five movements; even at one hour the production feels just slightly overinflated. But as Blashill crumbles under mounting guilt and, soon, grief, Churchill’s harrowing bioethics fable leaves us with a number of things to chew on.

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