Underground Railway Theater and the Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT have introduced audiences to any number of scientists through the medium of theater: Alan Turing in BREAKING THE CODE and Otto Hahn and the German brain trust in OPERATION EPSILON come immediately to mind—as does the excitement, still there, long after I saw those plays.
URT’s A DISAPPEARING NUMBER (playing through Nov. 16th) was originally developed by Simon McBurney with the company members of Complicite in Paris. Elaine Vaan Hogue’s clever production at the Central Square Theater combines ritual dance, percussion and lovely visuals to tell the story of the Indian clerk who revolutionized early twentieth century mathematics. I’ve just added the name Srinivasa Ramanujan to the list of scientists residing in my head.
The play features a contemporary, parallel story of a mathematician smitten with Ramanujan, which intersects (I know, you’re thinking a parallel can’t change its stripes and intersect with anything! Well, it can in the theater) with the historical collaboration of renowned British mathematician G.H. Hardy and the obscure twenty-three year old Indian clerk. But as often happens in plays with two time periods, the contemporary narrative doesn’t have quite the weight or the authority of the historical past.
Here’s something thrilling that can happen in the theater: You enter a world you know next to nothing about, and through the alchemy of stagecraft, you learn a little and leave wanting to learn more. Of course, the world of fractals, singularities and string theory is the realm of physicists and mathematicians, but you can now, thanks to Complicite and to URT, grasp the beauty in the science. Hardy, in fact, maintained in A Mathematician’s Apology, that “beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” (Ironically, brain scans have confirmed that mathematics lights up the same parts of the brain stimulated by art and music.)
Hardy was a leader in his field when he received a package from rural India containing heretofore unknown mathematical theory. Ramanujan’s partitioning of integers was something Hardy thought impossible to achieve. Ramanujan postulated over four thousand formulae in his brief thirty-three years on earth. To dramatize the depth and breadth of his contributions, long strings of numbers and symbols fly about the set: Seaghan McKay’s elegant projections dovetail with David Reiffel’s sound design and with Ryan Meyer and Brian Fairley’s whispers and chants (which are repeated by the entire dancing ensemble) to achieve the Brahmin unity of “thought, word and deed.”
A capable cast of actors gracefully bring Complicite’s characters to life: Christine Hamel is charming as the English mathematics scholar who, despite her love for Amar Srivastava’s irresistible suitor, cannot withstand the pull of India. Something draws her to retrace Ramanujan’s improbable journey. Jacob Athyal portrays Ramanujan with a strength that does not require words. Hardy (Paul Melendy) has much more dialogue but the drama builds on recurring tableaux more than on descriptive scenes. I was engaged for all two hours (or a series of 7200 seconds) by the infinite variety of theatrics involved in the storytelling (which counted more to me than the realistic exchanges). On balance, I calculate that the whole (play) figures greater than the sum of its parts.