by Jim Gladstone
San Francisco’s newest performance space—the American Conservatory Theater’s sleek Strand Theater—debuted last week with a bracing production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a fusillade of more than 50 shrapnel-sharp vignettes that collectively reflect the messy intermeshing of raw emotion and data that fuels daily life in contemporary Western society.
A scientist describes dissecting mouse brains in the midst of a blind date in a cozy restaurant. A couple debates whether sex can be boiled down to the dissemination and remixing of genetic code. Subway riders discuss the news of a faraway earthquake. Two young lovers stumble over words to describe the experience of physical pain.
Churchill’s script is structured less like a conventional drama than a rapidly scrolling Facebook timeline or Twitter feed. Through a combination of authorial intent and viewer interpretation, the scenes—between five seconds and five minutes in length—are played by a game cast of ten and bounce off of each other relentlessly, echoing, contradicting, and forming motifs that undoubtedly vary from the mind of one audience member to the next.
Before ever reaching the audience, the scenes have already been through an earlier level of interpretation beyond that of a conventional play: Churchill’s script is a words-only affair, with no character descriptions, stage directions, or even a prescribed order of presentation. It’s like a loose shuffle of unbound sheet music sans time signature or even a suggestion of what instruments should be played.
Director Casey Stangl, dramaturg Beatrice Basso, and the ingenious design and sound team—Robert Brill, Jessie Amoroso, Lap Chi Chu, C. Andrew Mayer, and Micah Steiglitz—have chosen to very specifically ground the British playwright’s scenes in San Francisco through video projections and costumes (there’s a Giants fan prominently featured in that subway scene).
This wise production choice adds ballast to the script and helps keep its abstractions from feeling overintellectual. It also underscores how appropriate this play is, at this time, in this city. The barreling force of the show’s split-second shifts in lighting, projected images, and percussive soundtrack nearly overwhelm the viewer with relentless change as the growing impact of high technology sometimes dizzies the residents of San Francisco (and their onstage avatars).
The Strand Theater itself—as high tech as local venues get—was built on the bones of a one-time burlesque house in a skid row neighborhood now home to Twitter headquarters. In Love and Information, ACT puts a stake in San Francisco’s tremor-prone ground, claiming that live theater can roll with the changes, remaining vital and engaging, even as audiences find their attention smithereened by competing media.
This is a production as interactive and engrossing as the most immersive multi-player video game. But the world it engages you with is not the stuff of fantasy. It’s reality.
Love and Information
The Strand Theater of the American Conservatory Theater
1127 Market Street, San Francisco
Through August 9
Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.