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Caryl Churchill is one of the most imaginative and tireless playwrights of this century or the last, having published six plays in her soon-to-be-concluded eighth decade alone. Her body of work goes back to the 1950s and has been well-served here in D.C., particularly by Studio Theatre, which has staged a half-dozen of her unfailingly provocative riddles. In her 1979 sexuality- and gender-scrambling masterpiece Cloud 9, which got a sublime production at Studio last year, the playwright made unusually specific demands as to how the show was to be cast.
In 2012’s Love and Information, by contrast, Churchill is so hands-off I’m not even sure it’s appropriate to credit her as the show’s sole author. Her script specifies no characters, only lines of dialogue. Who’s speaking these words and the context in which they’re said is the prerogative of the director and the cast, who also enjoy substantial (albeit not unlimited) freedom to decide the sequence in which they perform these roughly 60 scenelets. Each one is a micro-melodrama, the climactic instant of a story that otherwise remains hidden from our view. Some are micro-microdramas, where we witness an attempt at human connection so ordinary most writers wouldn’t bother trying to examine it. Churchill’s rough aim, I think, is the same as Charlie Brooker’s in his Black Mirror TV anthology — to rebut the omnipresent implication that making ourselves consenting vessels of a data stream that never, ever pauses is in any way good for us or for the world. The form of her piece calls out how fragmented our perception of our surroundings has become.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that theater folk, people who regularly turn off their iPhones for three waking hours, are not the cohort that most needs to hear this alarm. But we’re the ones Churchill can reach. Early on, she wrote original plays for radio and TV, but she hasn’t done that in 40 years. Her most recent teleplay—The After-Dinner Joke, from 1978—bears more than a passing structural resemblance to Love and Information.
Forum Theatre artistic director Michael Dove, who leads this production, is an unabashed Churchill fan—he’s done five of her plays—and has cultivated an impressively varied stable of performers over the course of his company’s 13 seasons. His bench of ringers is more diverse by race, gender, and age than most others in the region. It’s not surprising that he’d want to throw these actors (and two assistant directors) at one of Churchill’s most forbidding scripts to create Forum’s biggest gambles yet: 14 actors inhabiting something like 100 characters, all of them unnamed, over the course of about 100 minutes.
The result doesn’t have the scope or emotional heft of Forum’s marvelous, Dove-directed Passion Play of two-and-a-half years ago or its minimalist Angels in America from 2009, but in the sheer number of people involved, it’s an epic. But for all the prodigious talent in evidence, it still left me a little cold. There has always been a clinical quality to Churchill’s writing, but here especially, she seems to observe her subjects from a remove: “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” to quote one of her English forebears. Maybe the notion that none of us are very different from one another after all is intended as some cosmic expression of sympathy, but it doesn’t feel that way.
Perhaps it’s just the velocity and staccato rhythm of the thing. Having fifty-some blackouts in a show has the effect of making it feel very long, even though it isn’t. Set designer Andrew Cohen divides the audience into halves, each one staring at the other across the expanse of the Silver Spring black box Forum has occupied for eight years. Banks of video screens overhead featuring projections by Patrick Lord contribute to the sense of merciless, impersonal noise and chaos.
If nothing else, these little samples of life—declarations of love, a physician giving a patient the long odds of her survival over time, bits of gossip whispered semi-audibly among neighboring office workers—really show you who can act. (In this case, everyone.) Choosing which individual vignettes to mention really just amounts to playing favorites: It probably won’t help you at all if I tell you how much I loved Jade Jones’ work in a scene about a woman who reacts to potentially devastating news in a surprising way, or the perfect comedic button on a vignette where Shpend Xani is deliberating whether to move away or to stay put and Emily Whitworth is trying to influence his decision. See how maddening it is to talk in vagaries? Churchill is right that we all crave connection. I yearned to connect with these characters for longer than 105 seconds at a time. That’s not hyperbole. I did the math.
At Silver Spring Black Box Theatre to Oct. 21. 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. $30–$35. (301) 588-8279. forum-theatre.org.