Aurora Theatre brings strong elements to weak plot of ‘A Number’

David Allen/Courtesy

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Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley’s “A Number” demonstrates the importance of a compelling script, as the production sadly lacks one. While the strength of the cast and crew is immensely apparent, it’s not enough to make the overall production successfully captivating.

Caryl Churchill’s “A Number” depicts a father, Salter (Paul Vincent O’Connor), who makes the decision to clone his son Bernard (Joseph Patrick O’Malley) in an experiment without knowing that the doctors have actually already produced multiple clones of the child. The interactions between the original son, Bernard 1 (O’Malley), and the clone, Bernard 2 (also O’Malley), as they come into contact acts as the main source of conflict.

The main issue lies in a script that does not quite reach its own potential, as its themes are never fully fleshed out and it never exceeds the surface level of the world created. While this production, directed by Barbara Damashek, shows valiant effort to make the most of a lacking story, the strength in its parts does not quite fulfill the whole.

The show consists of just two actors, both of whom deserve credit for making the most of what they are given. O’Malley portrays both Bernards with dexterity and a grasp on the distinctions. He begins as Bernard 2 before transitioning to Bernard 1, which creates some initial confusion, mainly because of a lack of clarity within the dialogue. As the story progresses, however, O’Malley distinguishes each character through the specific traits he imbues in each, culminating in drastically varying portrayals.

O’Malley shows the neurotic tendencies of Bernard 1, a character plagued by a traumatic childhood, exceedingly well through his physicality of pulling at his own arms or excessive pacing. Meanwhile, his counterpart O’Connor successfully portrays Salter as an anguished father dealing with the unique consequences of having chosen to make clones of his young son.

The two actors play off each other to convey the evolving power dynamics throughout the plot, as well as the contrasting relationships Salter has with Bernard 1 and Bernard 2. It is their dynamic that provides the driving factor of the last scene — easily the most compelling of the entirety — which is uniquely heartbreaking, wholly as a result of their performances.

This moment is the closest the script gets to fulfilling its own potential, brought to an even deeper level by the two actors. O’Connor’s firm footing in his character’s unmoving mindset, paired with O’Malley’s astounding versatility, results in a potent tension that radiates off of the stage.

David Allen/Courtesy

David Allen/Courtesy

Crucial to conveying the science-fiction atmosphere of this production are the technical aspects of sound and lighting, which electrify the transitions between scenes. The production’s lighting and sound create an ominous mood, one that is clearly necessary but nevertheless missing from the script itself. Each transition consists of bold and abrupt but unduly lengthy light changes — from pitch black to bright white — along with accompanying sound effects that mimic the visuals.

The set design is minimalistic, with just two chairs and a desk enclosed in a circular border and blank, bright white walls. It gives off a feeling of architectural modernism without being too overbearing, reflective of a future not too out of reach from the present. A simple set that doesn’t draw too much attention leaves room for the focus to be placed on the actors, which is obligatory in this dialogue-reliant story.

With so many strong elements brought together for this production, it’s a shame that the story itself wasn’t strong enough to make this production all that it strives to be. The effort of the cast and crew to create a dynamic and captivating performance is commendable, illustrating their collective talent. Yet all of the strongest moving parts still cannot fix the detrimental obstacle of a flawed source material, which ultimately got in the way of the full potential of “A Number.”

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].