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Insufficient Evidence

Proof fails to make its case
despite fine Seattle Rep production

By Prospero

Seattle 10/20/2001 | The Seattle Rep's new Publicist David Tucker II was kind enough to invite me to review former Artistic Director Daniel Sullivan's restaging of his Tony Award-winning production of David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Proof (whew!)—despite the fact that the play is not by Shakespeare, nor has anything remotely to do with him (unlike the next play in the Rep's season, Amy Freed's The Beard of Avon).

And I accepted—not only because I'd been planning to come see what all the fuss was about anyway, but in hopes that the twin awards might indicate some kind of 21st-century American Shakespeare had just been discovered. Plus reliable sources have it that Dan Sullivan's next project is going to be a documentary film on current Shakespeare productions in America (I've asked Tucker to forward an email to him requesting further details, but have yet to receive a reply—stayed tuned).

Unfortunately, I must report that the quality of the Proof offered at the Rep does not allow me to confirm a cultural miracle of this order has occurred. I was hoping for too much, of course—but at least I expected to see a contemporary play worthy of the accolades it's received in its own right, if in no way commensurate with or even comparable to Shakespeare's oeuvres.

Sadly, I was disappointed even in this. While I can find no fault with Sullivan's production of this play, and the performances were all top notch—Stephen Kunken, who originated the role of Hal on Broadway, while certainly the equal of the other players, was in no way their superior—the play itself is lacking in the stuff of greatness. Sure, it's good enough to win the prize this year, and be remembered for the next few years perhaps—but not for centuries to come. I doubt I'll think much about it beyond next week.

Which is not to say an entertaining evening cannot be had attending a performance—just don't expect the entertainment to go very far beyond what TV or the movies offer in the way of twenty-something repartee, facile intellectual hero worship, and disease-of-the-week melodrama. Chelsea Altman played the rebarbative narcissism of supposed mathematical genius Catherine to a tee—but the question that kept coming up in my mind was, why bother? I see more than enough of this on Friends every week. At least Shakespeare imitated seriously elevated language for the most part—here I guess we're supposed to admire the accuracy with which Auburn imitates weak-witted contemporary manners.

As a one-time budding mathematician myself, I also didn't appreciate the hands-off approach Auburn takes to the meat of the subject here—beyond a few buzzwords thrown and allusions made to mathematical events recently in the news (Fermat's last and little theorems most notably). Stoppard's Arcadia seemed much more forthcoming in this regard, as I recall, and on a similar subject. Hey—didn't it also involve a young female mathematical genius and her teacher? Hm...wonder where Auburn gets his ideas.

And that's just the first half. After the intermission, the play devolves into "will she go schizophrenic like her father, or won't she?" disease-of-the-week territory then ends of violating the boundaries of verisimilitude at several points in favor of slapdash melodrama. Can we really believe sister Claire (a) would have paid the mortgage instead of her father, who must have gotten a good disability check, (b) wouldn't believe her sister capable of mathematical brilliance of her own, and (c) would subtly attempt to infantalize and entrap her by playing the "you're going to go crazy just like dad" card—and that our supposed genius Catherine would believe her? I don't know, it just seems a bit too improbable to believe.

Finally, to have all this rigamarole put in the service of an oh-so-PC "ain't it great that she's got the brains, and he's going to be a help meet for her to express them" ending was just too much for my own addled brain to take. Maybe there's a Y chromosome too many floasting around in there for me to understand—unlike Auburn, who apparently has purged his own in the interest of promoting female intellectual superiority in areas traditionally thought male. Perhaps his wife should write the next play—or sister is he doesn't have one.

So in the end, I guess I have to say that Proof seemed to me less a play like Shakespeare's—exploring fundamental cultural contradictions through resonantly suggestive language to conclusions as surprising as they are ineluctable—than an exercise in artistic pandering and intellectual dishonesty. Maybe my standards are too high—but at least I have some. Auburn, sadly, may not.

Copyright 2001 Dana Spradley, Publisher, for
First posted Sunday October 28, 2001.

Proof plays through November 10, 2001.

For more information on this and other plays in the Seattle Repertory Theatre season, see their website.


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