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By D. A. Blackburn
When we think of mathematics and the University of Michigan, our thoughts are generally about the school of engineering or lectures on calculus or physics. Rarely, if ever, would thoughts of figures and theorems intersect with the University Musical Society, but a daring new production set to make its American premiere on September 10 might just change that.
“A Disappearing Number,” the latest offering by acclaimed British theater company Complicite, promises a unique evening of theater, rooted firmly in mathematical history. “Math is the language of the universe, and there’s really nothing more exciting than that,” said Firdous Bamji, who plays an Indian-American businessman forced to cope with the loss of his wife and the impact her death has on his future. “It transcends race and culture. It’s a language that seeks to explain the unknown.”
Centered on the relationship of English mathematician G. H. Hardy and the visionary Indian theorist Srinivasa Ramanujan, “Number” is a heady mediation about the nature of existence, infinity and the unknowns that have vexed man since the beginning of time. On the peripheral of this historic relationship, the work incorporates fictional characters and stories in a variety of settings to add practical context to the more abstract mathematical concepts.
“We all understand loss, and question what that means. Where did this person go? Into infinity? What does that mean? They exist forever, somewhere. In what form? Do I meet them again? Are they around me right now? These are the questions we are struggling with in the play, and mathematics seeks to answer them,” said Bamji, who has been a part of the project since its conceptual stages.
The mathematical basis of the work and its two central characters make prime material for this type of theatrical exploration. Ramanujan’s theories remain staples in the world of theoretical physics even today. His belief that there are 10 dimensions and the mathematical formulae he developed to prove this idea are considered basic principals of String Theory, lauded by some physicists as the “theory of everything.” It’s this very idea that inspired writer/director Simon McBurney and his collaborators, including Bamji.
“One of the things we became fascinated with in building this show was String Theory and the latest findings in quantum physics,” said Bamji, a self-professed math illiterate. “The idea that somehow, all times can exist at once – you know, that there are multiple dimensions. The fact that we can only think in three dimensions and the fourth dimension, just the fourth dimension, is almost incomprehensible and our brains aren’t built to process it – these are mind-blowing ideas.”
Though it may sound like a lot to digest in an evening of theater, Bamji promises that “Number” will engage everyone, even those with no aptitude for mathematics.
“It’s a big mouthful to swallow. We certainly make the audience work at it. People come out of this show generally blown away, maybe full of questions, but very moved.”
Critics in the United Kingdom obviously agree, having awarded “A Disappearing Number” as best new play at both the Laurence Olivier and Critic’s Circle Theater awards.
‘A Disappearing Number’
University Musical Society at Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 10 through Saturday, Sept. 13, plus 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13 & Sunday, Sept. 14. Tickets: $18-$60. For information: 734-764-2538 or http://www.ums.org.