Over a career spanning four decades, Caryl Churchill has become one of the world’s most famous English language playwrights. The socially prescient, experimentally inclined British dramatist’s reputation is somewhat deserved: Her breakout 1979 farce of sexual politics Cloud Nine and her 2000 shocker about love, genocide and hat design, Far Away, are unnerving explorations of the way social conventions can warp and destroy anyone who dares to risk love. You leave these plays with a sense of caution for those who seek happiness and for what they might do to get it.
Yet what passes for vision in Churchill is less about the world we live in and more about the theater. The difference is telling. The dramatist claims that playwrights “don’t give answers; they ask questions.” Fair enough, though the showiness of her plays belies those claims. Critics fall all over themselves praising the innovative nature of Churchill's work, lavishing such panegyrics upon it as, “a bracing kaleidoscopic challenge,” “as inventive as anyone writing for the theater,” and “brilliantly stretching theater’s boundaries.” As if innovation were the equivalent of artistic and moral excellence.
Right now, Bay Area theatergoers have an opportunity to challenge the Churchill orthodoxy. Two of her most significant works -- one old, one new -- are up and running in San Francisco and Berkeley: Love and Information at the American Conservatory Theater’s (ACT) new performance space, the Strand, and the Shotgun Players' take on Churchill's 1982 feminist drama, Top Girls. In this pair of imperfect productions, Churchill’s limitations and strengths are on full display.
Love and Information, a play about the corrosive effects of technology, consists of 57 scenes and over a hundred characters, none of them memorable. Some of the vignettes last no more than a few seconds and none stretches for more than five minutes. The effect is deadening. Every moment is enveloped in a cloud of importance, as if to say, "This is the way we live! This is who we are!" When two people gaze at the sky and muse about light, time and death, or in a scene titled “Grief," where the death of a friend is just a set up for a joke, you know that Churchill is taking the easy way out. The overall form might be innovative, but the content is on the level of Hallmark card homilies.
Over and over in ACT’s production we’re asked to grant importance to mere sketches. Casey Stangl’s one-note direction coupled with the visual flatness of Robert Brill’s sets, Lap Chi Chu’s lightning, and the inevitable use of video projections accentuate rather than mute Churchill’s flaws. She hasn’t so much written a play about love and information as she’s written 57 commercials for one.