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Friday, September 1, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Future shock: Playwright Churchill ponders cloning

Seattle Times theater critic

Theater preview


"A Number" previews tonight through Wednesday, opens Thursday and runs through Oct. 1 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $10-$54 (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).

Years ago, before she stopped giving interviews to the press entirely, the esteemed British dramatist Caryl Churchill observed that the job of a playwright was not to give answers but to ask questions.

Throughout her long and fascinating writing career, Churchill (who turns 68 this month) has followed that credo and another one: Don't repeat yourself.

From her earliest works in the 1970s to her futuristic 2002 drama about cloning, "A Number," and her upcoming play "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You" (which debuts in London later this fall), Churchill has stubbornly carved out an unpredictable theatrical path.

Long allied with the cadre of left-wing stage authors who stormed the British stage in the 1970s, Churchill has used drama to probe important social and political trends of her time — including the sexual revolution ("Cloud 9"), modern feminism ("Top Girls"), Wall Street greed ("Serious Money") and the fall of Eastern Bloc communism ("Mad Forest").

But she always addresses such matters from a sidelong angle, or from many perspectives, rather than crafting boilerplate "issue plays."

And though her increasingly spare dialogue is now often compared to that of her colleague Harold Pinter, she has never locked into one dramaturgical style long enough to be easily categorized.

In "A Number," Churchill imagines the brave new world of human cloning by focusing on a man whose genetic material, without his knowledge, has been duplicated in many offspring.

Seattle director John Kazanjian, who is staging "A Number" at ACT and earlier mounted another recent Churchill work (the dystopian fable "Far Away"), says this one act with a cast of two imagines that human "cloning has happened, illegally and unknown to politicians, to the law or the medical profession."

In five "concentrated" scenes, Salter (played at ACT by Kevin Tighe) has uneasy meetings with three of his adult sons (all portrayed by Peter Crook), and struggles to make sense of what it means to be a parent or child in this new scientific order.

Kazanjian suggests the play (which also had a limited run Off Broadway and has been taken up by numerous American regional theaters) exemplifies Churchill's ability to translate big, complex concerns into individual human dramas.

"In many of her scripts, there's some configuration that's drastically changed in the socio-political time of the play," Kazanjian observes. "Then she goes in and examines a single life, or a single family's life, within this huge socio-

political landscape shift."

He also considers Churchill a "language playwright in the tradition of Shaw and Shakespeare. She's a playwright you go to hear."

When "A Number" initially opened in London at the Royal Court Theatre, starring Daniel Craig (who later became the movies' new James Bond) and Michael Gambon, most critics admired what they heard.

The London Evening Standard named "A Number" the best new play of 2002, and reviewer Nicholas de Jongh termed it "the first true play of the 21st century."

"It's an hourlong experiment in prediction," wrote de Jongh, "a meditation upon identity, a sort of nightmare imagining of what the magic of science, in relation to cloning, may one day require of our hearts and minds."

Kazanjian considers it a late work "in the canon of a great playwright. Churchill is really looking at our ethics and our behavior in contemporary times. In a culture of deceit and deception, it's about people seeking truth."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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