Maps, Maths and Other Madness
Proving our distortions in perspective
By Richard Lord
So how did mathematicians suddenly become so interesting, sexy even? I remember when those who excelled in math were just nattering nerds, perennial candidates for Most Boring Students in annual class polls. Now we suddenly discover that in reality math swots are visionaries operating at the outer reaches of consciousness, artists boldly exploring new ways of playing the music of the spheres.
Could it simply be the obtuseness of literary and theatrical types, who until recently refused to see the appeal of mathematics and those who make this science soar? Oh, let’s be kind to ourselves and simply say that the literary sensibility, peering across from its side of the Two Cultures’ divide, just didn’t realize the rich creative potential of math and mathematicians.
But how could this have been overlooked for so long? Here we have a system, which imposes absolute, lockbox proof on just about anything it sets its sights on. What a rich mother lode of literary potential exists when this power is thrust into the hands of flawed human beings trying to fit their formulaic certainties on the real world they inhabit with all its messiness, uncertainties and don’t-computes. No wonder these folks go insane from time to time, victims of the science they serve so brilliantly.
Probably the most famous example of this perspective is last year’s multiple Oscar-winning film, A Beautiful Mind, spun out of the real-life tale of mad genius John Nash. Now we have another multiple award-winning work, Proof, which takes the mad mathematician and the effect he has on others as its opening premise. This play by American theatrical darling of the moment David Auburn scooped up a raft of major prizes in its homeland and recently regaled audiences here in Singapore in an Action Theatre presentation.
The two central figures of Proof are Robert, the mad math wizard, and his daughter Catherine, celebrating her 25th birthday as lights go up. This makes Catherine slightly older than was Robert when he produced his major groundbreaking work. Since those heady days, however, Robert has achieved little of note in his field. In fact, much of his post-wunderkind period has been spent twisted in the knots of severe paranoid schizophrenia. Robert’s major activity during this time has been filling in notebooks with mishmash, mainly ranting and gibberish, though a brief flash of his residual genius occasionally lights up a passage or two.
Catherine, for her part, has been living under the long shadow cast by her celebrated father. Of Robert’s two children, Catherine is the one who inherited something of his mathematical abilities. Her anguish is caused by her fear that she may also have inherited his propensity for madness.
The close, if painful relationship between the two is presented in that opening scene, wherein author Auburn displays the strong writing talent he’ll employ throughout Proof. One of Auburn’s strengths is his ability to lure us into a seemingly safe corner of the narrative only to spring a surprise on us. In Scene 1, that surprise comes midway through this bout of father-daughter bonding when Catherine points out a slight inconvenience involved in such tête-à-têtes with Robert: Robert happens to be dead.
Now many of us may fantasize about holding conversations with dead relatives or friends, especially those recently departed. The question plaguing Catherine is whether this is indeed just a flight of fancy or an exchange she feels is really taking place. The latter would constitute rather compelling proof that she, too, suffers from severe mental illness.
As if this were not enough to fill her plate, the arrival of her importunate older sister Claire assails Catherine. Claire’s forte is practicality. She arrives for Robert’s funeral all primed to practice this practicality on her kid sister. Catherine, she’s decided, should vacate Chicago, her hometown, and move back to New York with her. Catherine resists this suggestion for a number of reasons, not the least of which is what she told her father in the early going: “She’s not my friend; she’s my sister.”
A fourth vector is soon introduced into the plot: Harold “Hal” Dobbs, a former star student of Robert’s, now teaching “younger, more irritating versions” of himself at their university. Harold is intelligent and honest enough to acknowledge the gaping difference between himself and Robert: basically the difference between impressive talent and genius. Hal turns up at his old prof’s house just before the funeral with one key motive ulterior to offering condolences: he wants to snoop around in Robert’s notebooks in hopes of finding some brilliant proof that will clinch his own career as a scholar.
Young Dobbs doesn’t even need to claim Robert’s work as his own to give himself a real boost up the ladder of academic success. Just finding this buried formula and publishing it with his own intro and commentary would be enough. But he first needs to get access to Robert’s study to peruse those notebooks, panning through all the schizophrenic detritus until he discovers some real gold nuggets of mathematical genius. So Hal eases his way into that study via Catherine’s bedroom. This he accomplishes with generous flows of awkward charm and booze.
Catherine, of course, feels used, deeply betrayed when she discovers that her lover from the night before is about to sneak off with a notebook in his bag. Hal does put up a sturdy defense for his actions, claiming he just wants to prove that later in life, Robert’s mind again achieved the heights of brilliance it once scaled back in his early twenties. Catherine seems to relent, especially when Hal proclaims that he’s seen just such a brilliant proof in one book. He even offers to give Catherine the credit for having found it. But Catherine says she can’t take credit for that as she didn’t really find this proof - she wrote it herself. And here endeth Act One.
The second act then largely consists of Catherine trying to prove to both Hal and Claire that she is, in fact, the author of this brilliant formula, even as she tries to prove to all, herself included, that her genetic legacy from Robert included mathematical genius but not mental illness.
As it turns out, the second half lacks both the energy and the dramatic inventiveness of the first act. This slight flagging is part of the reason why Proof fails to achieve or even approach greatness as a play: While well written and craftily structured, this play surveys well-explored terrain in a manner just a tad too mundane. Prime example: Auburn offers us very little in appreciating the convergence of mathematical genius and madness. Heck, even A Beautiful Mind - for all its Hollywood posturing and whitewashing - has more to tell us about this relationship than does Proof.
Finally, all that Proof does to any significant extent is to look at a triad of relationships, all of which have Catherine at one pole. But here too, Auburn offers us no major new insights or gripping drama in terms of analyzing relationships. Parent-child relationship, sibling rivalry and male-female bonding have all been handled much better on countless other occasions. The most interesting relationship here is that of Robert and Catherine, and even that is more interesting than gripping.
In fact, all that Auburn has done in Proof is to serve up some darn good writing with a quartet of characters who keep us engaged all the way through. All that he’s done? Anyone who can still pull off that feat deserves a good deal of praise, and let's not withhold it from this young dramatist.
Auburn’s script is dotted with dark humour. For instance, Robert consoles Catherine during one of her bouts of agonizing over her suspect sanity by pointing out that “Crazy people don’t sit around asking if they’re crazy. They have better things to do.” Such witty touches fill out the entire palette of Proof.
The Action Theatre team also deserves praise for giving us a fairly good rendition of this piece. The direction - by Krishen Jit and co-director Beatrice Chia - is clean and efficient, admirably serving the primary task of telling the story well. But the two co-directors have taken a tack where they accentuate the humour of the piece, letting that wry wit heal the many wounds the characters bear. This is a legitimate strategy, and it worked fairly well in the Action presentation, but it does involve a costly trade-off. The tradeoff in this Action version produced a nice breezy atmosphere, likeable characters and good laughs, but it stripped the relationships of a layer of depth and pain they might otherwise have had. This was particularly true in the relationships between Catherine and Claire as well as between Catherine and Hal. As a result, the happy ending the play moves towards takes on a slightly saccharine aftertaste.
The acting generally fulfilled the directors’ strategy commendably. Not surprisingly, the two most compelling performances came from Janice Koh as Catherine and Ramesh Panicker as Robert.
The only physical resemblance between Koh and Panicker is that both have two arms, two legs, two eyes, one mouth, etc. Nonetheless, they looked just right as father and daughter in this show. Panicker’s bulk was mixed with a certain awkwardness of movement as he teetered with self-doubts and tortured insights. It was all an apt correlative to a man who is an intellectual giant, beset with a wonky mind.
Koh enhanced her performance with a look of guarded fragility masking a stubborn strength and spiky resilience. Again, that look, that demeanor fit the character of Catherine extremely well. Moreover, Janice Koh is a good listener, staying beautifully present as a character even as the focus switches to another character or characters. This strength was put to best use in her scenes with Panicker, where it became a key catalyst in the persuasive chemistry between the two.
Mark Richmond was also well cast as Harold Dobbs. Richmond brought to this role the mix of enthusiasm and awkwardness that has become something of a trademark with him. When trying to ingratiate himself with Catherine and Robert, Richmond was like a large, overly friendly dog. At times, we had the sense that the other were afraid his Hal would jump on them and slobber all over their clothing. But when the script called for something more serious from Hal, Richmond found this element as well. Richmond did hit a few wrong notes at the performance we caught, one of the very early ones, but for the most part quite he was convincing and an effective part of the ensemble.
There was only one acting miscalculation in the Action edition, and that was in the way Nora Samosir presented the character of Claire. To get the importunate, irritating aspects of her character, Samosir too often turned to exaggerated tones and movements. While these histrionics did intensify the humour in certain lines, overall this type of hyper-Realistic playing drained her character of credibility. In other performances over the last year, Samosir has shown a strong interiority that would have worked much better here. As it turns out, the fourth pillar of this play was weakened by the in-your-face neuroses thrown out at us by this Claire.
The transitional music also produced several sour notes in that the songs chosen were often trite and cloyingly obvious, as if those helming this production felt the audience had to be taken by their hands and guided along the emotional journey of the play. But this was hardly necessary, considering the strengths that the acting and staging provided. And, as mathematics tries to teach us, only when everything fits together can a proof work perfectly. This Proof worked well, and I guess we should be grateful for that.
Another way of trying to impose some order on our bewildering experience of the world is cartography, which is the system called upon by another American playwright, Steven Dietz, in Lonely Planet. The luna-id staging of this piece was the second of the more interesting shows we were treated to over the last quarter of the season.
This work from the mid-1990’s is set in a shop that sells maps and little else. Shopkeeper Jody doesn’t seem to be drawing much business, as we glean from occasional reports of emaciated sales. In fact, the only other person we ever see in his shop is something of an anti-customer: rather than making purchases and then taking these out of the show, this character keeps bringing in items, which only serve to clutter up the establishment.
In its first half-hour, Lonely Planet seems to take on big, indeed global, issues. It alerts us again to the fact that cartography is a deceptive skill, a biased scientific tool providing - at its best - a rather skewed version of what our world actually looks like. This skewing is an outcome of the trade-offs - called ‘projections’ in that field - involved in map-making, where a rounded planet is presented on a flat surface. Flattening a round body like that produces inevitable distortions. One significant distortion makes the northern hemisphere look clearly larger than the southern, which is not the case. More outrageously, the frigid North Atlantic island of Greenland appears roughly the size of South America on standard maps, when it is actually somewhat smaller than Mexico, which it dwarfs on these maps. This is the so-called “Greenland problem” that typifies cartography’s unreliability.
But what Dietz is really getting at in Lonely Planet has little whatsoever to do with cartography and its large-scale bending of the truth. The play is actually a small-bore examination of the relationship of its two central characters, they way they bend the truth of their lives, and the devastations wrought by AIDS.
Early on, shop owner Jody asserts “People I know are dying. That’s my Greenland problem.” As we come to discover, most of those dying people he knows are victims of AIDS. Jody is joined in his repeated encounters with loss by his weird quasi-friend Carl, who knows many of the same victims for whom Jody is stoically mourning.
Carl himself has a singularly strange way of mourning. He keeps on appearing at Jody’s map shop toting chairs that he claims to have found and just intends to leave at Jody’s place until he can retrieve them later. Despite these assurances, the chairs keep on piling up, devouring the open spaces that characterized the shop at the play’s opening.
Carl also claims to pursue a number of professions, including journalist, police photographer, and art restorer. But when asked about his work, he delivers accounts (usually quite funny), which quickly veer into the absurd.
Just when we begin to believe that Carl is either completely batty or a compulsive liar, the chairs and the assumed occupations take on a more poignant meaning. Carl actually performs volunteer work for an agency, which picks up furniture from the homes of deceased AIDS victims. The chairs he leaves at Jody’s shop belonged to some of their mutual acquaintances. The jobs he claims to have also once belonged to these people.
Lonely Planet is stitched together with such devices which keep our interest peaked for a short time. However, they are never fully examined. For instance, Jody suffers from agoraphobia. The irony that someone who runs a shop dealing in small reproductions of the entire world is terrified to venture outside his own door is tartly delicious, but not much is done with this irony.
That’s true of many of the notions that Dietz plays with here. For instance, Jody’ s statement that “People I know are dying. That’s my Greenland problem” is tellingly dropped and then just lies there. In what way, pray tell, is a significant number of this man’s acquaintances succumbing to AIDS like the cartographical distortions of Greenland? If Dietz knows, he’s not giving the rest of us even tantalizing clues. These intriguing but undeveloped notions form the weakness of this work.
Actually, what Dietz has concocted here is more of an engaging two-pronged character study than a fully realized piece of drama. It stands in sharp contrast to his Private Eyes, ably mounted last season by luna-id, wherein Dietz weaves an intriguing plot around a series of characters that were not always entirely consistent or absolutely believable.
The focus of Planet’s study is on two gay men who helplessly look on in pain as AIDS claims friends, lovers, and casual nods on the street. Towards the end of the play, they express relief that they never became lovers. But what they finally show is that they, in fact, share a deep bond of love - the love involved in friendship. This is the way find some release from the lonely planet of oblivion and heartlessness that is too often modern urban existence.
It’s a difficult play to perform, and luna-id did an admirable job of bringing it off. Director Christian Huber found the right tenor for his production and kept the piece well paced and well balanced. The staging was spare, allowing our attention to be fixed on the two figures, their words, their fears, their loneliness, and their affections. Sebastian Zeng’s set was likewise spare (forgetting the proliferation of chairs), quite fitting to the mood invoked here.
Daniel Jenkins sunk his teeth fully into the role of Carl, the juicier of the two roles. Jenkins managed to combine both the tough and the fragile aspects of Carl as he negotiated the various turns in the character. He infused his performance with a clenched, almost threatening energy, but not so much as to upset the balance in this delicate psychological pas-de-deux.
In the early going, it felt as if Michael Corbridge was going to cede the balance to Jenkins, as his Jody was delivered in a restrained, understated fashion. It appeared that this Jody might serve mainly as a foil to Carl. But when the emotions in the play started to revolve into a vortex, Corbridge ratcheted up his acting prowess and developed into a strong anchor for this somber duet.
Even though all the play’s language and references remained pure US of A, the two actors and director made the decision to have the pair deliver all their lines in their own, English accents rather than try on American voices. Such a decision is to be applauded if the alternative was ill-fitting speech patterns that sound resolutely phony. And despite the British inflections, the voices did not seem at all out of place, which is the only valid criterion for judging such a strategy.
This was a truncated season for the luna-id project, one that saw three scheduled productions in the second half of the season either cancelled or postponed. To close out such a year with a solid, if low-keyed, production such as this one is heartening and bodes well for one remains one of the most accomplished theatre companies in Singapore today.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003