Barrington Stage Company: ‘Breaking the Code' Nothing by the numbers here
PITTSFIELD -- Director Joe Calarco knew little about Hugh Whitemore's play, "Breaking the Code" and even less about its central character Alan Turing when Barrington Stage Company artistic director Julianne Boyd asked him to direct it this summer.
"The only thing I knew when Julie called was something about the Enigma Code; that Turing was gay; that Derek Jacobi played him in London and New York," Calarco said during a recent interview at a North Street coffeehouse.
"I had the feeling it was a stuffy history play about mathematics. When I read it, I was blown away, especially by its structure."
"You get a little bit of the middle, then the end and then the beginning," said Mark Dold, who is playing Turing in Calarco's BSC production, which officially opens at 5 Sunday afternoon, after its final public previews this weekend in BSC's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage on Union Street, where the drama is scheduled to run through Aug. 2.
Turing was a British mathematician and computer scientist who, during World War II, worked alongside other scientists, code breakers and radio amateurs at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire who were feverishly attempting to gain valuable information about the Germans, Japanese and Italians by breaking their intelligence codes.
"And the codes changed every day so everyone working on them had only a 24-hour window before they would have to start all over again," said Dold, who, in preparation for playing Turing, spent two days wandering around Bletchley Park to get a sense of the setting and atmosphere.
At the height of the war, 8,000 were working there.
"These were the people who won the war," Calarco said, "but they could never acknowledge in public what they did or talk about it with anyone."
Turing became fascinated with artificial intelligence.
"He didn't quite trust the human mind," Dold said. "It could be prone to make mistakes. He felt the only way to counter human error was to create a machine, a computer."
The result was the Turing Machine. Its singular achievement was to crack the Germans' imposing Enigma Code, which paved the way for the Allied victory.
Turing was something else. He was a gay man in a country in which homosexuality was against the law.
Turing did little to conceal his homosexuality. People working closest to him, Calarco said, either knew or weren't surprised when they found out and treated him compassionately.
Turing was arrested in 1952 after having had an affair with a 19-year-old. He was charged with gross indecency, convicted, given hormones to blunt his desires, stripped of his security clearance and barred from continuing his code-cracking work. He committed suicide in 1954.
"His greatest triumph was being who he was," Dold said, "and his greatest tragedy was being who he was."
On Dec. 23, 2013, Turing was officially pardoned by the Queen of England.
"He really was ahead of his time," Dold said.
"And yet no one in today's gay community knows much, if anything, about him. He should be on every gay pride flag."
Dold -- who last appeared at Barrington Stage as C.S. Lewis in "Freud's Last Session," a role he continued playing for nearly three years Off-Broadway -- acknowledges that creating Turing has been challenging. He came to rehearsal prepared -- off book.
"I knew I didn't want to be learning the words in rehearsal and get in the way of the experience. I wanted to get the job done, especially since we had so little time, three and a half weeks of rehearsal for a two-week run," Dold said, recalling advice he once received from his mentor at Yale School of Drama.
"He said ‘work fast, work deep.' That's acting in the Berkshires," Dold said.
Calarco sees "Breaking the Code" as a memory play and a mystery.
"Turing is haunted by memory and the people in those memories," Calarco said.
"It also never occurred to me until I read the play how much of a mystery it is, almost like a classical procedural, especially the first act."
"Breaking the Code" was not a success when it was produced in New York in 1987 with Jacobi reprising the role of Turing. The play is not widely produced and has never had a major New York revival but with Turing's posthumous pardon and a film drama about him starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley due for release in November, Turing might just be coming into the light.
"Most people (here) never have seen this play," Calarco said. "I hope people will come willing to give it a chance."
"If people come in thinking they're going to see a play about a mathematician who broke the Enigma Code, they're in for a surprise," Dold said. "They're in for a ride."
What: "Breaking the Code" by Hugh Whitemore. Directed by Joe Calarco
Who: Barrington Stage Company
When: Today through Aug. 2 -- press opening 5 p.m. Sunday. Eves.: 7 Tue., Wed.; 8 Thu.-Sat. Mats.: 2 Wed., Fri.; 5 Sun.
Where: Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield
Tickets: $20 and up; previews $15, $20
How: (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org
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