The vignette “Secret” encapsulates the ingenuity of Forum Theatre’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. Two office workers sit at their computers, back to back. One (Samy El-Noury) is dying to know the secret the other (Lilian Oben) is dangling, just out of his reach. El-Noury rolls his chair frantically toward Oben, promising never to tell. Oben roguishly toys with him, tossing her hair. Finally, she whispers the secret, so we never hear it.
The original script contained only these two characters, and their lines of dialogue. The Forum presentation has a humorous twist; the boss (Ryan Tumulty) walks by–twice. The two co-workers, afraid to be caught chatting, whip around to focus with near-religious fervor on the screens of their respective computers. This is a situation we can all recognize, and laugh about, because who hasn’t been caught gossiping, just when the boss walks in?
Love and Information was originally produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London (2012). It was later adapted for an American audience at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2014. Hailed as Churchill’s most accessible play, it is both a valentine to and a condemnation of the way technology unites and divides us.
The play consists of over 70 possible scenes. The actors are left to devise, with their director, details about the characters and situations. This novel structure works against our emotional involvement. But by using a variety of creative techniques, Director Michael Dove and his actors overcome this challenge and offer us a tour-de-force of style, artistic honesty, and visual complexity.
Churchill, an internationally acclaimed playwright, has written for the stage, television, and radio. Forum has produced four of Churchill’s plays—Mad Forest, The Skriker, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? and Seven Jewish Children—a play for Gaza. Some of her finest works: Top Girls, Serious Money, and Cloud 9, have already become classics. The range of subject matter she explores is dazzling. The underlying costs of ambition for women, (Top Girls); financial skulduggery in the stock market (Serious Money); and gender roles and colonialism (Cloud 9).
As the play begins, a delightful surprise. We are invited to look at and welcome each other. The actors chant the gene codes (AGT TCG CCT TGA etc.) which comprise one of the snippets of information. Above us is a screen, flashing letters, texts, pictures, and videos; all epitomizing the prodigious impact of the Internet.
What effect do these endless flows of information have on our minds? On our hearts? On our sense of connection with other human beings? All significant questions, and well worth asking. Some passages are enhanced by utilizing an unlikely setting. In “Lab” a scientist (Ahmad Kamal) tries to impress his date (Megan Graves) with a painfully comprehensive account of his experiments on chickens (Hint: it’s not pretty). Sometimes a character is added. In “Piano” we are offered, in addition to the two lead actors, the magnificent voice and presence of Jade Jones. Sometimes the background sound (outdoor noises as two women look at the starry sky) adds a new sense of depth. Sometimes a traditional interpretation is very moving. A man with some form of dementia (Edward Christian) lashes out at his wife (Lilian Oben) because she insists on who she is and he doesn’t believe her.
Every actor has opportunities to shine. Nanna Ingvarsson, as a preoccupied wife; Emily Whitworth and Jared Shamberger, as two somewhat unusual blue-collar (or in this case, yellow-attired) workers; Shpend Xani, as a fearful informer; and Kathleen Akerly, as a wife who does NOT want to invite the couple who only talk about math. Three of the most interesting scenes feature Moriamo Akibi and Lillian Oben, as sisters who discover they share an unexpected relationship, Jared Shamberger, as a cornered celebrity; and Laura C. Harris, in a tender moment with Jade Jones.
Lighting, by William K. D’Eugenio, adds nuance and subtlety, and keeps us focused amid the multiplicity of incidents. Costume Designer Frank Labovitz has created an enormous amount of highly imaginative costumes. Scenic Design, by Andrew Cohen, could not be bettered. Sound Design, by Roc Lee, is inventive and sometimes breath-taking.
The playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose work in some ways resembles Churchill’s, said this in a New Yorker article (11/18/15): “She recreates form with every play and asks a new formal question with every play. Each time when I sit down to write, I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and I think, ‘Is this a play?’ I like to imagine that Caryl Churchill thinks the same thing—maybe not in those terms, exactly, but there’s always this question: Is this a play?”
The answer: not really. But Director Michael Dove has given us a perfect portrait of how we live now; welcome to (dis)connected America, 2017.
Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.
Love and Information plays through October 21, 2017, at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.