Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) was a mathematical genius whose contributions to the theory of numbers include pioneering discoveries related to the partition function. He was mainly self-taught and his mastery of fractions, infinity and string theory was unequaled by living mathematicians of the time.
Such a topic does not sound like the makings of an award-winning drama. Yet, the renowned British theater company, Complicite, conceived and mounted this homage to Ramanujan in London in 2007 where it captivated critics and took home several prestigious honors. Complicite was founded in 1983 and is known for a highly-physical brand of performance. It characterizes its key working principles as “seeing what is most alive, integrating text, music, images and action to create surprising, disruptive theatre.”
Timeline’s production of “A Disappearing Number” is remarkably faithful to that mission of surprise and disruption. It opens in a classroom where Ruth, an infectious math teacher, is rhapsodically lecturing about the beauty of prime numbers, Fibonacci sequences and the like. The atmosphere is charged for actors and audience alike. At lecture’s end, Al, a clearly-captivated stranger, sticks around. The first inklings of what becomes an intense relationship take root, paralleling the intellectual connection of Ramanujan and famed Cambridge mathematician, G.H. Hardy.
The production’s staging is quite thrilling as it hurtles forward at breakneck speed, bombarding viewers with visual stimuli that use all four walls of the theater and often leave the audience racing to keep up between Ramanujan’s struggles at Cambridge one moment and Ruth and Al’s star-crossed love affair the next. Timeline’s staging is a tour de force and a strong scenic design by William Boles.
However, I grew increasingly frustrated at the constant disruptions for updates on Ruth and Al. Al, we learn late in the show, is not a student but a hedge fund executive who appears in Ruth’s classroom one day and becomes infatuated by her intensity. While figures play a major role in both their lives, the lovers exist on two different planes that can never meet. The attempt to make Ruth a modern counterpart of her Indian idol struck me as flawed on Complicite’s part since it drew attention away from the true protagonist.
The play’s bait and switch tactic means we catch only fleeting, skimpy glimpses of Ramanujan: in India developing his theories, enduring physical hardships and racist attitudes by Royal Society mathematicians save Hardy. The play barely skims the surface of his life. He eventually contracts tuberculosis that leads to his tragic death at the age of 32.
So much of this mathematician’s achievement remains untold. Had I not seen the film, “The Man Who Knew Infinity” last year, I would have little idea about the full story of this great man’s achievement.
Timeline deserves high marks for its faithfulness to Complicite’s conception. Kudos go to Juliet Hart’s portrayal of Ruth and to Nick Bowling for keeping all the play’s story balls moving. The play is a qualified success. Its misdirected focus on Ruth and Al’s doomed affair made the real disappearing number Ramanujan himself.
“A Disappearing Number” is playing at Timeline Theatre through April 9th. Performances run Wednesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. with matinees on Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 773/281-8463 or visit timelinetheatre.com.