Regular readers of this blog know that I have a taste for the surreal and irrational in theater. What they may not know is that I happen to have a degree in computer science. My wife knowing both those facts (either that or she got REALLY lucky) brought my attention to a show opening in NY this week that was described as the biography/fever-dream of one of the founders of computer science, Alan Turing.
Playwright Snoo Wilson shows excellent choice in subject material. Alan Turing’s life is operatic in its trajectory right out of the box, from the early mathematical successes at King’s College, Cambridge through his heroic breaking of German naval codes during WWII, to the tragic unraveling of his life due to his homosexuality and his ultimate suicide. Wilson connects the strands of this tragic biography with a host of fanciful theatrical inventions, most predominantly the interjection of Turing’s beloved Porgy Bear into almost every area of his life as confidant, advisor, narrator, protector – a sort of deus ex ursa. Alex Draper as Turing and Tara Giordano as Porgy the Bear are the only actors on stage who maintain their roles throughout the show, the rest of the ensemble playing multiple roles (although in a clever turn, while the other actors play different characters in name, they each play consistant roles in Turing’s life, Alex Cranmer as the Father/Bully/Drill Sergeant, Peter B. Schmitz as the Mentor/Schoolmaster/Colleague, Nina Silver as the Mother/Judge, Cassidy Boyd as the Boyhood Lover/Fantasy Lover).
The challenge in biographical works, particularly ones that span an entire life, is the sheer wealth of information that needs to be communicated. With each scene the playwright needs to establish a new time, a new episode in the character’s life which almost always requires some expository information to be snuck in somewhere. Wilson sometimes handles this gracefully, more often when using Porgy and the more fanciful devices, less so when squeezing out information from the real world compatriats at school or at home.
But the even larger challenge is shaping the expansive events of a life into a meaningful narrative, if not to extrapolate something as simple as a single point, at least to understand something about a particular example of a human being, and therefore to understand more about human beings in general. And this is where the production left me most wanting.
That said, there is a lot to like in this production. The Potomac Theater Project does a fine job realizing the work. Draper is a consistent and sympathetic Turing, affable and likable with a touching innocence. Giordano has the more rewarding of the lead roles, ranging from childlike companion to vengeful avatar of the gods. At times it’s unclear which is the plaything and which is the player. Giordano is given many opportunities to shine, two which stand out most prominantly are her seductive turn as the non-existant Mrs Turing seducing his ex-schoolmate physician (the hottest bear I’ve seen in… Oh crap. Does that make me a furry?) and the genuinely affecting final moments with her beloved master as he bites into his own poisoned apple.
The production design is also very strong. Cassidy Boyd’s emergence from the ether clothed only in a white body stocking and a projected matrix of 1’s and 0’s was gorgeous, likely the strongest gesture of the night and damn near worth the price of admission. One suspects that the script may have called for nudity, but in context the white body stocking seems a more appropriately anonymous blank canvas than the specificity of a naked body. A special mention should be made for Danielle Nieves’ costume design work. Porgy the Bear looked fantastic. (Wait… did I already say that? Crap. Now I AM a furry.)
However, through no fault of the performance, the portrait of Turing we receive is frustratingly inconsisent. In one scene while trying to teach a seminar, he appears to be a near raving lunatic, but in much of the rest of the show his interactions with other human beings appears to be either quirky or just a wee bit on the curt side of polite. At the same time, one of the central ideas of the play is that he has an ongoing dialogue with a stuffed animal. So which is it? Quirky eccentric or raving lunatic? And I couldn’t help but feel like his descent into suicide felt somewhat perfunctory. I’m not saying I go to theater to see the tortured details of a man getting broken down, pushed past the point of any hope of retribution and salvation, subjected to the inhumanities of humanity itself… well. Maybe that is why I go to theater. That and cute girls in bear costumes.
Ahem. But seriously. When we arrive at this climactic scene, when he claims that he just can’t take it any more, when death is the only option… I just didn’t believe him. Maybe I didn’t know him well enough. Maybe I didn’t see the depths or indignities he was suffering. Maybe I didn’t see the difference between the disconnected and alienated life of his past with the disconnected and alienated life of his forfeit future. Maybe I didn’t see them because they weren’t shown to me.
There’s a lovely germ of an idea buried in this show, Alan Turing, the father of artificial intelligence, the champion of the thinking machine, unable and unwilling to differentiate between that which thinks and that which only appears to think, his disconnection from humanity matched only by his connection to the inanimate. But this idea feels undeveloped. It’s as if there are too many vectors to follow, Turing the homosexual, Turing the eccentric, Turing the unloved child, Turing the war hero. For the most part, Wilson’s narrative inventions and the company’s skilled production carry the play, but at over two hours, it seems that more focus on a few of Turing’s dimensions would have resulted in a sharper picture. Ultimately, although he does get partial credit for showing his work, Wilson isn’t able to sum the vectors towards something that gets much deeper.
OK. I’m not saying this is a GOOD idea, but after the show I couldn’t help wanting to see a scene parodying A Beautiful Mind. Right around two thirds of the way through there would be this dreadfully dramatic twist when it’s revealed that Porgy the bear DOESN’T REALLY EXIST! THE BEAR IS A PRODUCT OF TURING’S OWN PARANOID SCHIZOPHRENIC MIND! Betcha didn’t see THAT coming.
I should probably mention that I hate that movie.
Oh, and if you haven’t seen A Beautiful Mind, retroactive spoiler alert. Sorry.
But the movie sucks either way.