Saturday, September 18, 2010

Strawberry Workshop. Breaking the Code.

I always walk into the Strawberry Workshop theater knowing that my heart is about to be broken. The plays I have seen so far are full of unbearable things, either brutal acts we humans inflict on each other, or choices we have to make. (The exception is Gutenberg! The Musical during which I laughed so hard tears poured down my face and snot ran from my nose as though from a faucet). I look at my program, recognize the actors, feel a thrill at the thought of seeing them again. When the stage lights illuminate their faces I see the ghosts of previous characters, for a moment, and then the present story takes over and the memories fade away.

Breaking the Code is about the mathematician Alan Turing, whose efforts in code-breaking during World War II helped defend Great Britain from the German forces. He was rewarded with an OBE for his wartime work. Then he was charged with homosexuality, illegal at the time, in the early 1950's, and treated with female hormones to reduce his sex drive as part of his parole. A few years later, he committed suicide. That someone could be treated as a criminal for his sexuality only sixty years ago is mind-boggling. Heart-breaking. That many preferred to live a lie is equally so. And sixty years on, the world is only a little better. Matthew Shepard died twelve years ago next month. He would have been 34 years old this December.

The play shifts back and forth in time, between schoolboy days and wartime interludes and the events leading up to and after his arrest for "gross indecency." I still don't understand how something you do in the privacy of your own home, not even out on the front lawn in view of the neighbors, can be considered "gross indecency." I probably never will. The law itself is grossly indecent, because it presumes that a higher authority - the law - can pass judgment on the most intimate of acts that should remain unwitnessed by others. If Turing had remained silent, if he had not called the police about an unimportant burglary that took place because his lover had told an untrustworthy acquaintance his address, then perhaps his life would have continued on with his research, with his computers, with his mathematical theorems.

But he didn't keep silent, any more than he could marry a woman and pretend not to be a homosexual. He makes the ultimately devastating choice to not ignore the petty thefts of a few pairs of shoes and trousers. It would be tantamount to paying blackmail, he tells the inspector, who is forced to turn him in. Why can't you just let it go, he cries. The inspector gives him a long look, which I can see clearly from the second row. There is something like pity in that look. The inspector cannot turn away, and let him go, any more than Turing could remain silent, and live a lie.

The set is a spare black space, with a carpet incised with a diagram of the Golden Mean, motherboards dangling from the ceiling, a nod to the early computers that Turing developed. Between scenes the actors carried furniture in and out to delineate different times and places. You are so close you can see the actors' faces clearly, watch the play of emotions across their faces. Inspiration. Love. Guilt. Heartbreak. Anger. Shame. It is not an ensemble piece, for the whole of the story rests on Alan Turing (and the actor who plays him, Bradford Farwell), but the emotional weight of the story comes from his interactions with the people in his life - his boyhood love, his mother, his superior at Bletchley Park, a co-worker who loved him and whom he might have married, his lovers, the inspector who eventually arrests him.

The heartbreak comes from watching the intellectual brilliance of a man become eclipsed by his inability to control his emotions. Inability is the wrong word. It is more like a defiance, arrogance. His world is centered around himself, his work, his desires. He cannot be bothered to lie to save anyone's feelings, nor, in the end, to save himself.

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