Long Division: Where Math and the Human Condition Meet

One tragedy, seven characters, plus a whole lot of math equals an avant-garde play portraying the complex ways in which humans are interconnected.

Through a series of monologues, the seven characters in Peter Dickinson’s play, Long Division, share their memories of events that lead to the death of a bullied, mathematically gifted high school student. Dickinson’s use of the unconventional lecture/performance style to convey the stories in a non-linear format is intellectually engaging. As a lover of games, puzzles, and play on words, the lecture series gave me the opportunity to put together the pieces of plot as each story unfolded. The mathematical metaphors which required me to delve into my long-term memory to recall my university calculus classes got my brain juices flowing trying to “solve the case”, or rather discern the underlying theme of the play, that of human interconnection. To further metaphorize the theme of math and human interconnection, as one character told their story, the rest repositioned themselves around the speaker much like particles of a particle physics theoretical framework, signifying the six degrees of separation that connects one person to another.

I appreciate the variety of characters that Dickinson’ wrote into the play. Selecting characters from all walks of life truly made the story feel more plausible and appropriate considering the diverse city in which we live. However, I feel the casting director may have played into the ethnic and gender stereotypes a bit too much – a robust lesbian bar owner (Jennifer Lines), a tall, handsome, white male business executive (Jason Clift), and of course, my favourite, the Asian math teacher (Nicco Lorenzo Garcia) – how cliché. I do wonder if the playwright wrote these ethnic and gender choices into the script or if it was a decision made by the casting director? Nonetheless, the cast played their roles well, and spoke of the mathematical theories as though they were experts in the field even including some cheesy puns, to boot.

The black box set with the back drop of random 3D geometrical shapes was simple but gave the cast a lot of space for the abstract dance choreographed by Lesley Telford. Aside from positioning themselves similar to a string theory diagram, I honestly didn’t pay much attention to the intricacies of the choreography. Not because I didn’t care for it – I was just more engrossed in the dialogue and quietly snickering at the math puns.

To sum up (I can make math puns too!), Dickinson’s Long Division is a creative and well-written piece of experimental theatre that is not only entertaining but thought provoking and intellectually stimulating. Bravo.

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Math and Music: Connections between Long Division and the Piano Teacher

Peter Dickinson’s recent Vancouver play Long Division uses mathematics as a framework to tell the story of how seven characters are intimately intertwined in their grief over the death of a child.  Famous historical mathematicians have their images projected on the set throughout, and mathematical equations and a Venn diagram are used as a metaphor for the human interaction that takes place in the story, while the script cheekily weaves phrases like ‘in addition’ throughout the dialogue to ‘add’ another layer.

Dorothy Dittrich’s new play at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre, The Piano Teacher, does all of this too—but replace the math with music. There are no projections, but many famous historical musicians are mentioned and some of their compositions are played.  Here we have only three characters, but as above, the reason for their connection with each other is because a child has died (and in this case, a husband also).  In her playwright’s note, Dittrich describes the story as being “about one of life’s most difficult passages,” – a play on words that means her character Erin needs to conquer her grief the same way a musician conquers a difficult musical passage.

Other connections between the two plays abound.  In each play, much of the story is told through monologue.  Long Division’s characters rarely interact with each other at all, but deliver almost all their lines directly to the audience in a lecture format, even looking up at the screen behind them to acknowledge images or photographs there the way a teacher would during a class.  The Piano Teacher’s characters interact with each other more often than this, but both the piano teacher Elaine and to a lesser extent, her grieving student, Erin, do directly address the audience at various points.  Despite this unusual choice in plays that are essentially about how much people interact with and need each other, in each play, the monologue technique works.  The audience is invited in as a character in the role of sympathetic therapist.  We listen patiently in our seats so the grieving can share their stories with us.

Each play’s production took stylistic risks.  Long Division used choreography in which characters would line up and silently perform ritualized hand motions or walk briskly between each other like cogs in a clock as another actor delivered their monologue to the audience. I’ll admit that at times I found their movements robotic and distracting, but at other times the action succeeded in underscoring the arc of the story, as when all the actors found themselves gradually intertwined in a tableau.  Where The Piano Teacher took its risk was in set design; at one end of the corridor stage, a series of wires or strings were strung between the ceiling and the floor.  They were clearly meant to invoke the wires in a piano and it was therefore unsurprising when during the course of the play, Elaine, the piano teacher, plucked them—however this action left me ultimately confused.  Although it was a striking theatrical set piece, I found it didn’t contribute to the story in any meaningful way.  Perhaps the intention of the chorography in the first play and the strings in the second was to take us out of a traditional stage set and create a kind of dissonance or tension to underscore the fractured feelings of the characters in their grief.

Both Long Division and The Piano Teacher were impeccably acted and directed, and the stage management in both productions in terms of props, lighting, projections and sound cues were flawless. Both enjoyable experiences at the theatre.

— Cathy Collis

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