The West Coast premiere of a new play by Caryl Churchill is an event in itself, because the seminal English playwright of Top Girls and Cloud Nine continues to produce intoxicating, challenging work.
But American Conservatory Theater (ACT) has achieved even more of a coup with its production of Churchill's Love and Information: The production marks the first show in the newly incarnated Strand Theater, ACT's new venue in the Civic Center area of Market Street.
Built in 1917, The Strand was a longtime cinema and eventual porn theater that shut down in 2003. ACT purchased the building in 2012, starting a $34.4 million renovation plan that produced an elegantly restored 283-seat theater.
The space's formerly shabby interior now radiates the cutting edge: In the grand, two-story lobby, a giant LED screen displays text messages before the show, which is all about feelings of disconnection in the ultra-connected information age.
Love and Information is a mosaic of 57 unconnected conversations, divided into seven sections linked by a particular theme such as meaning or memory.
Although Churchill specifies that the larger sections must be performed in order, the scenes within each chapter can be shuffled any which way a director desires. Some vignettes are as short as five seconds, and none is longer than five minutes.
The superb ensemble cast of 12 plays more than 100 roles in rapid-fire scenes that occasionally overlap. The actors perform some of the vignettes on video in Micah J. Stieglitz’s slick projection design, seamlessly incorporated with the live action.
Director Casey Stangl adds some heavy-handed touches to Churchill's free-form script. A conversation about sending a message through terror attacks is heightened by having one of the speakers rigged with dynamite. A simple exchange between a couple about having forgotten a dinner date takes on an entirely new subtext by having the husband with another woman while he's complaining to his wife that she didn't tell him she was going to be out.
Each new section is introduced with thunderous drums and a morphing video mosaic of dozens of faces swirling around each other, which is a cool effect but feels at odds with the melancholy quality of the vignettes themselves.
A few of the snippet-style scenes merely intrigue -- they're a provocative sentence or two whose significance remains mysterious. Others are wry skits that take one joke and drive it home -- they're funny without being particularly thought-provoking. Two fans (Christina Liang and Dominique Salerno) freak out because they don’t know a teen idol’s favorite scent; Former lovers (Dan Hiatt and Anthony Fusco) reminisce about old times but remember none of the same details.
Other scenes pack a real emotional wallop in just a few lines of dialogue, such as Hiatt as a man with no short-term memory meeting the same person over and over again.
One of the most devastating expressions of grief I've ever heard is cheekily set by Stangl at a party where people are doing the “Chicken Dance.”
“He must have meant everything to you,” Liang says to Fusco. “Maybe,” he replies, as if in a daze. “We’ll see.”
The conversations play off each other beautifully in terms of mood and subject matter. But what statement they're intended to make is very deliberately left open to interpretation.
There's a definite undercurrent of frustration with technology running throughout the play. This makes the high-tech production perversely appropriate, but occasionally comes off as fuddy-duddyish, as if exemplifying the 20th century's exasperation with the 21st.
Characters complain about loss of privacy and video documentation supplanting organic memories. When someone can't sleep and says he'll just go on Facebook, it seems as if it's intended to sound self-evidently absurd, when for the audience it may be the most natural thing in the world.
Showcasing The Strand's technical wizardry and intimacy to the full, Love and Information is a canny choice for ACT to launch its new space.
In its upcoming season, ACT seems to be using The Strand to take some chances on lesser known works, while devoting the main stage to bigger-name playwrights (all male this season, curiously enough) and popular revivals.
In the fall, The Strand will host the world premiere of Monstress, local playwrights Philip Kan Gotanda and Sean San Jose's adaptation of Lysley Tenorio's short stories of Filipino-American life in San Francisco. February brings The Unfortunates, a steampunk musical inspired by the blues standard "St. James Infirmary." If this experimental pattern continues, the new space will be a welcome addition to the Bay Area's theatrical landscape.
Love and Information runs through August 9, 2015 at the Strand Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED