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Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Akron Univ. School of Law

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Thursday, December 23, 2004

Cloning and Human Identity: "A Number"

Number184 Caryl Churchill's play, "A Number," is creating a lot of buzz these days.  It's playing off Broadway with Sam Shepard in the lead, and has prompted two solid reviews from The New York Times (Mel Gussow, Ben Brantley) and an essay on bioethics and art by Benedicta Cipolla (NPR web site).  Here's some of the Brantley review:

Even the title makes you dizzy when you think about it, in the way that staring at printed words causes them to wriggle and blur. ''A Number,'' to be exact (or inexact), is the name of Caryl Churchill's stunning new play, which opened last night at the New York Theater Workshop. And a number is something definite and specific, right? As in pick a number from 1 to 10?

Sorry, but that's not what Ms. Churchill has in mind, or at least not the only thing she has in mind. ''A number'' is also the first line of this latest drama from the ferociously inventive Ms. Churchill that stars Sam Shepard (who is terrific in his first New York stage appearance in more than 30 years) as a guilt-hobbled father and Dallas Roberts as his son.

Uh, make that sons. Because ''a number,'' in this instance, refers to an indeterminable quantity -- more than one, maybe 20, maybe more -- of the versions of Mr. Roberts's character who are roaming the earth.

"A Number," you see, is a gripping dramatic consideration of what happens to autonomous identity in a world where people can be cloned. The invaluable Ms. Churchill has not begun to stop surprising and unbalancing theatergoers. Since the 1970's this British dramatist has produced studies of a world quaking under constant siege in which style somehow always uniquely mirrors content. She has pondered mutations in gender (''Cloud Nine'') and language (''Blue Heart''), as well as the seismic disruptions of revolution (''Mad Forest''), civil war (''Far Away'') and environmental poisoning (''The Skriker'').

She has now moved on to ponder a threat to the very cornerstone of Western civilization since the Renaissance: the idea of human individuality, a subject she manages to probe in depth in a mere hour of spartan sentences and silences. It is hard to think of another contemporary playwright who combines such economy of means and breadth of imagination.

Every word, gesture and pause in this dramatic fugue for two actors, meticulously directed by James Macdonald, sets off echoes of multiple meaning. The play trenchantly makes the point that we no longer have the apparatus, verbal or psychological, to accommodate the changes in a time when science is moving faster than society. There's a reason that the men in ''A Number'' seem to speak in shards. Inarticulateness has become the only fitting form of eloquence.

The arrival in New York of ''A Number,'' which was produced at the Royal Court Theater in London two years ago, is a great event. . . .

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