Groff's 'Five Hysterical Girls' is one polished show

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Kelsey Smith, arts editor

Despite their beauty, numbers don’t explain much – 15551 might be a darling little palindromic prime to look at, but looks aren’t everything, after all. This seems to be the point that Rinne Groff, author of “The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem,” was getting at. One of the points, at least. Maybe. Honestly I’m not too sure – the evening left me feeling more bewildered than I’ve felt since I sat in the back row of my high-school calculus class.

Another point Groff was getting at, however, had very little to do with math. It did have to do with relationships – more specifically, relationships with geniuses and how difficult they are to maintain. At times she seemed to be hinting at the inherent selfishness of the work done by academics and the life they force their families to lead, questioning the fulfillment one can find from constantly chasing the next big theory.

Set in 1911 during a mathematician’s competition at a British seaside resort run by a one Mrs. Hilbert (Lauren Fondren ’09), a reference to the German geometrician David Hilbert, the play remarkably employs 20 actors as scientists, students, hotel workers and the wife and members of the Vaszonyi family. Moses Vaszonyi (Alec Strum ’08) is a leading theorist originally attending to judge the competition, but ultimately to deliver a surprise entry into the competition on the theorem of the play’s title. “Hysterical girl” is his pet name for a particular kind of prime number made up solely of the numbers 3 and 4, though what it actually signifies is purposely (I think) left obscure. All we are certain of as lay people is that Moses has discovered four of them and is positively certain there is a fifth. He is joined by his wife, Vera (Laura Harris ’07), and their three daughters, the eldest Kleine Esther (Jacqueline Hurwitz ’07) and twins Sophie (Myra Palmero ’07) and Hypatia (Himali Soin ’08).

As far as overall production value is concerned, “The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem” was astoundingly impressive. Aaron Gensler ’08 did a remarkable job of creating a world made of chalk, blackboards, dusty bed sheets and uncomfortable stools for the characters to inhabit.

Upon entering Wright Theater I was confused to find all of the traditional audience seating covered with muslin, but upon glancing ahead I realized that a sort of black-box theater had been created on the stage. This decision was both practical and artistic (director Cheryl Faraone was concerned that a “math play” wouldn’t be able to fill seats) and it worked. The height and grandeur of the space made for a lovely flourish each time a chalk board was raised or lowered, while visible technical aspects – lighting, catwalk, etc. – somehow contextualized the characters themselves. Perhaps the evidence that we were indeed witnessing a fleeting work of art and not the workings of everyday life served as a reminder of the absurdist comedy that occurs when things get a little too serious or confusing.

The intimacy created by the close seating meant that audience members were able to appreciate the character work the actors had done up close. Additionally, between the accents and the math talk I don’t think I would have been able to understand a good 50% of the material from much farther away.

Part of why this world that Gensler created with her set functioned so well is because the actors took it and ran with it by truly inhabiting the space through voice and body – no one abandoned his or her character for a single moment.

Furthermore, these characters were fully developed in every possible direction; movement and mannerisms were consciously controlled, yet natural, as a means of truly ‘becoming’ the character.

Costumes by Catherine Vigne ’07, for example, helped to convey the children’s ages – a giant bow on someone’s head is usually a pretty good indicator that they still sit at the kid’s table – but more importantly the actors took it upon themselves to offer a broad spectrum of performances from the fragility and uncertainty that comes with being 11, to the heavy lead-footed stride of Russian geniuses.

As the omniscient math recorder documenting numbers and calculations with chalk on every surface of the set, Soin embodied pure concentration and could have served as a public service announcement warning against the dangers of spending too much time thinking about highly theoretical things. Her skittishness and awe-struck expression, the latter seemingly genetically imparted to her by means of her father, added up to an almost Greek savant-like character, potentially crossed with an Edward Munch painting.

Playing Moses, Strum was more than convincing as a great mathematician on the brink of a great discovery. His mannerisms expressed what it means to be completely immobilized out of fear of failure; he spent much of his time staring at what we can assume were invisible numbers, almost able to taste the greatness that awaited him. His strained relationship with wife Vera and daughter Kleine Esther, the moral voice of the play who manages to escape the mad world of genius, was painfully tangible.

Hurwitz’s detectable portrayal of moving from admiration of to disgust with her father and the institution of genius that he represents was also quite remarkable.

Vera, played by Harris ’07, exhibited her dissatisfaction with a distant, difficult husband by sleeping with, well pretty much anyone she came across. Harris, however, managed to impart some warmth into her sometimes-unlikable character by visibly conveying her desire for love, a sentiment none of us can begrudge her for.

This character development was exhibited by all of the many cast members. Additionally there were a variety of countries and therefore accents represented; each member added his or her own personal quirks or phrases that were repeated, unique to a specific location or frame of mind, thereby molding them into believable beings beyond their sometimes-unbelievable lines or behavior – lines such as: “The sum from N equals one to N equals infinity of the formulation ‘one over N to the S’, he broadened its significance to the entire complex plane. . .”

The point in such passages, and there are many, is surely to illustrate that any kind of symbolic system, be it linguistic or numerical, is ultimately unsatisfying and can possibly lead to madness if overly analyzed.

Groff chose to end her work with a monologue from a play within the play given by Hypatia, who seems to be making the case that neither mathematics nor art alone are capable of explaining life’s mysteries.

While it is plausible that a synthesis of art and math could yield more satisfying, comprehensive answers, I am not quite convinced that Groff’s model is the best to follow. I understand that it is not necessary to grasp the actual mathematics discussed, but the semantics involved can become altogether overwhelming, almost distracting at times.

Still, the cast and crew worked with a difficult and, at times, flawed text to produce a satisfying result. This was experimental theater at its best, and over the top character performances, especially by Neil D’Astolfo ‘07.5, who gets points for the most outlandish yet believable French accent I’ve ever heard outside of France, were never wince-inducing. Instead they sustained a provocative absurdist tone capturing the passionate spirit of mathematical geniuses and their language of numbers.