Published in KPBS On Air Magazine April 1998
A nightjar is a nocturnal bird. So is a theater person. And so, at times, is a mathematician.
Playwright Karin Williams’ latest work “Third Voice of the Nightjar” (at the Fritz Theater, 4/9-5/10) was inspired by the diaries of Bertrand Russell. The brilliant British philosopher was trying to solve a paradox that seemed to invalidate the complex set theory of mathematics. He spent several years trying to find a way around the problem. Every night, from eleven to one, he wandered around in the woods, thinking. He never figured out the answer, but he learned to distinguish the three different calls of the nightjar.
“I was really touched by that,” says the soft-spoken Williams. “The idea of going out and searching for something impossible, and finding something else instead.” Her latest play, her sixth to be mounted at the Fritz, where she’s the producing director, is about “a modern-day scientist working on a logical problem and trying to make a mathematical breakthrough. Today, instead of wandering around in the woods, he might go cruising around the Internet.”
Williams, who grew up in Albuquerque, and spent some time working in computer technical support, is more familiar with the Web than the woods. “It’s a very strange world,” she says. “And the strangest thing about it is, it can be almost as satisfying as the real world, though it’s much more empty and soulless. People can be anyone they want to be; I think that’s the attraction of it. But online ethics are very different; you can’t really expect people to be who they say they are.”
In “Nightjar”, for example, Sean is a drug-dealer whose cyber-persona is a woman. In the production directed by Bryan Bevell, Williams’ ex-husband and close co-worker (artistic director of the Fritz), two actors — Michael Hummel and Michelle Hanks — play the dual role. Bevell’s cast features other Fritz regulars and San Diego favorites: Tim West as the scientist, Beth Bayliss as his wife, and Lamont Thompson as a sinister computer programmer.
“It’s a lovely, sad play,” says Bevell. “All about love and relationships, what’s knowable and what’s do-able. Very philosophical, and very much about obsession, love and lust. It’s a negation of rationalism and science as tools for the ultimate understanding of life. The world is a more mystical, complex place than science can explain… Karin is a remarkably dense and subtle, dark and funny writer, but not an easy one. This is a very difficult play. It takes place in different realities: cyberspace, dream-space and real space.”
“Cyberspace is a lot easier to stage than you might imagine,” asserts Williams. “It’s just like an alternate reality.” That can probably also be said of some of the playwright’s previous jobs — from computers to arts organizations to a one-year stint as a telephone psychic. But it doesn’t take a psychic to predict that Williams, 33, an enormously talented writer and director, has a bright and promising future ahead.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.