Metaphysical theatrics hits the UMS stage

BY BEN VANWAGONER
Daily Arts Writer
Published September 9, 2008

“A Disappearing Number”
Complicite
At The Power Center
Weds. through Sat. at 8 p.m.
Sat. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Courtesy of Complicite

A dusty blackboard onstage read “1+2+3+4+5…= -1/12.” Clearly nonsense, an impossibility swept in for theatrical effect. “A Disappearing Number” is, after all, a play rich with phantasms — numbers glow and float across the stage and otherworldly lighting sets a strange, metaphysical tone. Yet standing beside the board was an actor who seemed to enforce its possibility just by being flesh and blood.

“That,” he said, pointing to the blackboard, “is the most real thing on this stage.”

He's right, of course. The rest of Complicite’s production, an elegant performance that confronts ideas of infinity and existence, is equally on target. Unpredictable, brilliant and as entertaining as it is intellectual, Complicite’s “A Disappearing Number” forces us to reconsider our definition of theatre.

Few companies are more famous for their style than for their individual productions. The honor is given to only the very best — groups of people who do not simply put on a play, but help an audience step into a new reality. It’s a short list: The Royal Shakespeare Company, Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble and now perhaps Complicite.

Complicite has impressive acting and fabulous set design, but that’s not what sets it apart. What the company truly excels at is embracing the unexpected. In a world of “Hamlet”s and “Hairspray”s, everyone knows that Laertes dies and Edna makes the show — which is exactly what Complicite rejects. Their productions are endlessly fresh and not just because the plot is new. They employ video, ingenious lighting and organize their performances with a cheerful disdain for outdated ideas like “chronological order” or “the fourth wall.”

The show has no cast list, defining its actors’ roles as “collaborators,” otherwise avoiding the issue. That’s not to say it has no characters. Firdous Bamji plays Al, an American futures investor and the husband of Ruth, a math researcher obsessed with the legacy of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the great mathematician.

On the phone, Bamji’s enthusiasm for the show was evident. He’s the only American in the cast, and the visit to Ann Arbor is his one chance to perform in the US. The show has deeper significance for him as well: Bamji is of Indian heritage and has a strong interest in the mathematician Ramanujan around whom the play revolves.

“("A Disappearing Number") is about two mathematicians, one of whom is a Cambridge professor (G.H. Hardy) and one of whom was Indian, an "untaught genius,” he said.

The plot is circuitous. The two men struggle to understand each other and their theories at Cambridge while World War I rages around them. Al travels from Los Angeles to India in an urgent attempt to understand his place in reality. It is a relentless battle to express our fundamental need to understand.

Using Ramanujan as a focal point, “A Disappearing Number” dives headlong into the most difficult questions we face as human beings.

“One of the themes the story kicks up is infinity and the concept of death,” Bamji said.

Math plays a large part of the performance in places where it seems most out-of-place, such as philosophical subjects like death and the afterlife. According to Bamji, this is exactly the idea: to show the connections between existence and infinity using mathematics — the unlikely medium that ties it all together.

And surprisingly, to express it in a way that is engaging, according to Bamji, is no trouble at all.

“Our struggle at finding a way to appreciate it will perhaps make the expression of it even more elegant,” Bamji said. “We’re seeking to emotionally connect with people; it’s not a lecture.”

This idea is central to the show, a careful balancing act between intellectual wonder and emotional appreciation.

“Even if you can’t understand the math, you can understand the beauty of it and marvel at it,” Bamji said. “It’s art. (These mathematicians) are artists.”

Complicite has embraced the standard of revolutionary theatre. When the radical dramatist Brecht proposed that theatre create not entertainment but education, I doubt he envisioned a production like “A Disappearing Number.” He probably never foresaw the use of video or the brilliant lighting that Complicite uses. But the innovation and the sense of urgency to surprise? That he would understand very well.

“It’s all about taking theatre and making it unexpected,” Bamji said. “We engage you at all times; we don’t want the audience to be ahead of us.”