Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information is something of a curiosity, more of a thought experiment or a very intricate exercise, than a finished, polished piece of writing. Constructed of an array of unrelated scenes – some as short as two lines, others lasting five minutes, but each featuring completely distinct and separate characters, environments, settings, stories – that touch, in a sometimes elliptical way, on overlapping themes, ideas, or preoccupations, the play feels almost like an internet binge given physical form.
The individual segments are more naturalistic than most of Churchill’s other work, but as the segments accrete, the surfeit of information and the constantly shifting perspectives add a gloss of the surreal and postmodern. Some of the scenes feel like much longer stories distilled (a man tells his wife he’s reported an acquaintance to an anonymous crime hotline; a young woman tells her brother she’s really his mother), while others are snapshots of an instant in time (a man watches a snail outside a tent; a woman grapples with a census form). But the piece is intriguing more than it is affecting; it never goes deep.
It is, however, an astonishing piece of craft – the sheer array of costumes (by Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood) and the design, by Miriam Buether, illustrate the physical world of each micro-play in a glance, the production as a whole taking place within a huge grid-patterned cube. There’s an ensemble cast of fifteen, with each performer playing up to a dozen people, and not a weak link among them. The choices made by director James MacDonald in terms of casting and acting make vivid the various characters within the frame of Churchill’s text, which is silent not only on how roles should be distributed, but on the gender, age, and race, of each character.
While the play is enormously engaging as an intellectual challenge, almost a puzzle for the audience to solve, it feels almost intentionally off-putting on an emotional level, actively refusing affective connection by constantly switching the channel, as it were, denying the viewer any sort of investment in narrative, in resolution, in any of the conventional narrative pleasures. It’s fascinating but somehow unsatisfying.
I don’t doubt that the very lack of satisfaction is intentional, something we’re meant to interrogate and find meaning in, but that only goes so far to offset the play’s skimming-the-surface quality. And there are evident patterns, strains that move through and across the piece – some of them encapsulated in the title itself: the relationship of emotion to data; of sex to information. Others include the persistence and failure of memory, from the normal (the different moments two former lovers remember from their relationship) to the pathological (the neurological disorder Capgras Syndrome, where one believes one’s loved ones have been replaced by identical replicas, or anterograde amnesia, where one becomes unable to form new memories); the internal logic of mathematics; the failure of communication and the keeping of secrets; the nature of faith, and despair, and sanity; and a series of scenes – parables, almost – about children who lack the ability to feel a particular emotion or sensation (fear, remorse, pain).
Still, it feels more invested in its ideas than in the work actually composed of those ideas. Or perhaps, by virtue of not giving its audience the usual structures for engagement, Love and Information is turning that work inside out: giving its audience a transparent view of the mechanics of making that work, the physical elements and acting and directing choices before you on the stage, without the conventions of a narrative to hang them on–an almost unmediated immersion in the information that comprises theater. It’s a fascinating notion, but a bloodless one: the emphasis om precisely calibrated information rather than the rough edges of love.