Breaking the Code

By Philip Pearce

BREAKING THE CODE, which just opened at Jewel Theatre in Santa Cruz, joins an exciting succession of recent plays about the wonders  of math and science. 

Pac Rep audiences watched enthralled as the teen hero of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time worked through a full-length proof of a mathematical theorem. Leading ladies in Western Stage’s Legacy of Light and Jewel’s Silent Sky faced the challenges of being female in the male-dominated world of astronomy. 

Older than any of those scripts, Breaking the Code, introduced 1986 London audiences to a brilliant, little-known mathematician/cryptologist named Alan Turing. The fact that it was he who had broken the notorious Nazi Enigma encryption code had just been revealed after decades of silence in the Top Secret files of World War 2. The recent Benedict Cumberbatch film, The Imitation Game, focuses on strategic and political implications of Turing’s pioneer code-breaking work at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire. 

Breaking the Code cares more about the almost erotic power mathematics exerted on the inner life of a complex scientific genius, whose struggles weren’t just scientific. Turing was sexually attracted to men, not women, and was as open about that fact as British society in his day was rigidly insistent that homosexuality was a disease and criminal life style. Whitmore’s compelling script reminds us that a reputedly impenetrable foreign encryption system wasn’t the only code attacked by Alan Turing.

It’s a multi-faceted role that won for Derek Jacobi the kind of stage esteem he had already garnered for his television appearances in I Claudius. Video of the BBC television version of his performance as Turing gives the vivid impression of a man who, even in middle age, still acts like an awkward, star-struck scientific schoolboy. John Castle, whom I saw when he inherited the role from Jacobi, added a characteristic note of brooding intensity. In Jewel’s new production, Equity actor David Arrow seems focused and fussy. He mines the character’s nervous vulnerability but leavens it with flashes of sudden smiling humor. 

Director Kirsten Brandt admirably exploits the way the Whitemore script deals with the people who figure significantly in Turing’s life from his days as a student at Manchester University to his death in 1954, at age 41. Again and again you are presented with seemingly predictable and familiar British theatrical characters who then open out into individualized human who refuse to be stereotyped.  

A Manchester bloke named Ron Miller seems at first to be just another shady bisexual petty thief who exploits Alan’s perfunctory sexual advances and steals seven quid from his coat pocket. Yet when his scientist bed partner begins to speak about the idea of a new mechanical “brain” he calls a computer, actor Wallace Bruce skillfully projects a sincere and touching fascination with an idea the Miller character has only previously encountered in sci-fi flicks he’s watched at the local Odeon. 

As Turing’s mother Sara, Emilie Talbot is initially a conventional feather-brained mum from a British TV sit-com. Then, confronted by her son’s arrest under the Gross Indecency laws and an explanation of the charges, she is, yes, appropriately hysterical and appalled, but becomes a surprise ally in his opposition to prevailing moral standards and a guardian of his posthumous reputation.

Rolf Saxon’s portrayal of Dillwyn Knox, Turing’s government boss and mentor at Bletchley Park, is particularly memorable. In ideology and outlook, Knox is everything Turing isn’t—conventional in his middle class moral standards, limited in his scientific knowledge. A lesser actor and playwright would have been satisfied to craft a nice comic Colonel Blimp type and leave it at that.  Instead, they combine to create a man who practices unimpeachable British correctness and normality with such a gruff conviction and honesty that he ends up the most consistently appealing character in the play.

An enthusiastic Bletchley Park colleague named Pat Green, played with wit and intelligence by Maryssa Wanlass, decides and confesses pretty early on that she loves Alan. With characteristic candor he says he loves her too—but as a friend with whom he can never share the ultimate act of human love. A picnic together, late in the action, makes it clear that this work-related, essentially intellectual, non-sexual relationship has been the most stable and enduring in either of their lives.

Seen quite a lot but not heard much, Matthew Kropschot is appropriately mystic and appealing if a bit too tall and commanding as a dead classmate named Christopher whom Alan loved and still dreams about from their days at Sherborne School. Kropschot seems much more physically suited to a second role which exploits his physique and offers him lines—though they are all in Greek!

Jeffrey (Geoff) Fiorito as a policeman named Mick Ross and David Bryant as a government functionary with the generic name of John Smith offer excellent, believable work in roles that are less detailed and nuanced but equally important in the career of a man who, virtually unknown 35 years ago, was last year voted the greatest person of the twentieth century in a BBC poll.

Turing’s pioneer work on a mechanical “brain” functioning free of the pressures of human emotion becomes a metaphor for his desire not to suppress but to mentally control the heartaches and thousand natural shocks his flesh is heir to. This flesh and spirit conflict is dramatized in what to me is the sharpest and funniest sequence in the play. Settled in for a romantic same-sex weekend in Athens, the mature Turing, who speaks no Greek, lunges amorously toward Kropschot, who is now a muscular Greek named Niklos who speaks no English. But Turin’s love making gets abruptly sidetracked as he launches into an extended explication of a recently published mathematical theory. His rhapsody becomes more and more ecstatic, while the puzzled Niklos continues to lounge half-naked and ignored on a divan.      

Whitemore’s text is compelling in its flexibility and completeness. The enraptured Turing soliloquies on the glories of science and math are skillfully written and excitingly staged and lit. But I began to wonder as opening night moved on, whether there were maybe one or two too many of them to be easily processed by a scientific amateur like me.

Back home in Seaside, however, I found encouragement in a sentence from Jewel’s Artistic Director Julie James’ program notes. “Even if you don’t understand the complicated systems (Turing) studied and created,” she writes, “you can still be amazed and inspired by his genius, passion and determination.” 

And I was.

Jewel Theatre Company continues Breaking the Code on weekends through April 14th.

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo: David Arrow as Alan Turing and Wallace Bruce as Ron Miller.     

MCT’s Four Old Broads



By Jocelyn McMahon

FOUR OLD BROADS, by Leslie Kimbell, is a perfect kickoff to Mountain Community Theater’s 37th season. With an almost all female cast (all but one actor is a woman), the script is a refreshing counter to the unfortunate, yet truthful, stereotype that there are limited, and sometimes unappealing, roles for older actresses. Instead, Four Old Broads features bold, witty, and fun women, each with a complete backstory, who fit the classification of “senior.” Kimbell’s geriatric humor hits on touchy themes of aging, friendship, health and love, and addresses them in an uproariously hysterical manner that will make you laugh until your sides are sore (or your back or whatever else seems to be bothering you this week).

Directed by seasoned theater expert Kathie Kratochvil, this production brings MCT veterans and new faces alike to the stage with an authentic cast that brings to life a collection of wacky, but (mostly) amiable, characters that are either residents or staff of Magnolia Place Assisted Living set somewhere in Georgia.

Our journey begins with lights up on Beatrice Shelton, played by zany Jane Chahbandour, as she decides she needs a vacation—but NOT another trip up to Helen, Georgia, to see that “precious little German village for the umpteenth time.” Scouting a travel catalogue she lands on the perfect opportunity: A Sassy Single Seniors Cruise through the Caribbean.

Beatrice, we quickly learn, is a former Burlesque dancer who has had a few rendezvous over the years that she is certainly not ashamed to brag about, begs her friend and fellow member of Magnolia Home, Eaddy Mae Clayton (played by well-offsetting comedic partner Janene Forsyth) to join her on the cruise. A devout Baptist, Eaddy is usually either praying or gossiping, and constantly prefacing her sentences with “I’m not trying to get in your personal business, but…” before prying away. Although Beatrice and Eaddy Mae couldn’t seem more different on the outside, they have a deep friendship that is honest, sometimes to a fault. With great stage chemistry, Forsyth and Chahbandour capture the humor of the hilarious duo and deliver the comedic roasts written in the script with perfect timing.

I’m not exactly sure why, but soon the ladies decide they need a third member to embark on their getaway and set out to find a friend to join them on the cruise. Perfect timing for the newest member of the senior community, the sweet and well-received Imogene Fletcher (an ideal fit for the subtle, yet charming Wendy Edmonds). She quickly agrees to join them on the vacation, and thus becomes the missing piece to the Charlie’s Angels triad, later referenced in the show.

Despite the usual hindrances of aging, everything seems to be dandy, until, one day, Imogene blanks out completely with symptoms of temporary memory loss. Soon Imogene’s memory lapses become more and more frequent. Fearing that the new and despised nurse, Pat Jones (the more than convincing Rebecca Adams) will send her to the other ward, aka “The Dark Side,” Imogene’s friends cover for her in a rather heroic manner. Beatrice also notices something fishy with all the medication changes, and quickly begins a scheme to determine if Nurse Pat is at the bottom of Imogene’s sudden dementia. Of course, a mystery wouldn’t be complete without a couple of sidekicks, and so the angels begin their investigation.

Along the way we get to meet many other eccentric characters of the assisted living community.

There is Maude Jenkins (Kulani Kamaha’o), the funeral planning soap opera junkie, who hasn’t brushed her hair in the last year. After MUCH persuasion the angels finally decide to take her on the singles cruise with them and when Maude decides to enter the Miss Magnolia Place beauty pageant the ladies choose to help her out, providing her dance lessons as well as a little—uh, large—makeover. Kamaha’o is hilarious as the deliberately exaggerated Maude; her sense of physical humor and comedic timing she’s got down to a T (Maude will be played by Marjorie Young at performances March 29-31).

There is also the hip-swinging Casanova, Sam Smith (played by the always delightful Jackson Wolffe), a former Elvis Impersonator who has a certain charm with the ladies, even if he also has a pacemaker and suffers from erectile dysfunction. Sam and Imogene quickly fall into love-struck naïve romance, that proves to be actually quite sincere. Wolffe and Edmonds play the cliché romance well, not taking anything too seriously, and addressing the humorous hurdles of dating, aging and memory loss. We also get to appreciate likeable caring nurse Ruby Sue Bennett who is played by Mary Ann LoBalbo. She might appear a bit dowdy and meek, but Ruby Sue has quite a few surprises to unveil in the final act. (Sorry, you’ll have to see it to find out.)

But the show-stopping performance of the night was Rebecca Adams as the sinister nurse Pat Jones. Though Adams has just returned to the stage from a long hiatus, her performance was powerful and authentic, each ruthless line making me sit up a little straighter in my seat. This is clearly not her first time playing the villain, and wow! she does it well.

An impressive aspect of Four Old Broads I thought of on leaving the theater is the amount of physicality required for a show written primarily about seniors. From carting around oxygen tanks full-show and enacting near fainting, to hopping over and jumping on couches, to tap-dancing and full-gyrating Elvis impersonations, the cast seemed unfazed and was agile and spritely with their physical comedy.

One of my favorite moments is when the three angels (Beatrice, Eaddy Mae and Imogene) sneak out in the middle of the night to investigate what is suspected to be going on in Nurse Pat’s medical kit. Crawling on hands and knees in full army cameo, complete with fake foliage headpieces, the absurdity of the moment is priceless, and left the audience in a fit of hysterical laughter.  

Overall Four Old Broads is amusing and flies by quickly with witty jokes and outrageous scenarios, but one problem with the show is length. It could just be the way the script is written, but the ending just seems superfluous—it doesn’t know where to stop. After the major plot twist/reveal is resolved, it seems like a perfect moment for bows, but the show continued and in the last fifteen minutes energy seemed to take an immediately downfall for actors and audience alike. In addition, the double intermission was unneeded and added over half an hour to a play that runs about two hours (not including intermissions). I personally advocate for cutting second intermissions.

The amount of detail put into the production is definitely apparent, particularly in the set designed by Larry Cuprys. From the furniture to the wallpaper, every prop is meticulous, and immediately transports us to the world of Magnolia Place Assisted Living Home. Also, a shout-out to Steve Edmonds, Sarah Marsh, and Tara McMilan for their brief, but memorable cameos as voice actors for characters of Alexia, Carlton and Dupree, the stars of Maude’s favorite fictional soap opera “A Search for Love”—absolutely hilarious!

Charming, honest and fun, Four Old Broads caters to Mountain Community Theater’s audience as well as their pool of talent. A great pick for their 2019 season; bring your grandparents, enjoy a glass of wine, and watch a heartfelt comedy that marches to its own drum.