Dark comedy ignites in second act
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Jun 08, 2015  |  Vote 0    0

Dark comedy ignites in second act

Stratford Gazette

Stratford Festival Review


Chet Greason cgreason@stratfordgazette.com

I wondered at first when a piece in the program for The Physicists spoke so much about the Cold War and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. I hadn't got a chance to peruse the program until intermission, and had yet to see much in the way of politics in this, the premiere of the Canadian translation of the dark comedy by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

What I did see was a lot of the same fetishization of the murder of women typical of other Dürrenmatt pieces, such as the one-act play Episode on an Autumn Evening, the story of an author who pens murder stories based on killings he himself carries out. It's a not-so-secret secret that causes beautiful young women to throw themselves at the author, hoping to be the star of his next story.

The beautiful young women in the first act of The Physicists seem to matter very little to anyone. They're props to be discussed by chortling and snacking policemen; their loss lamented by their employer for the gains she stands to lose. The murderers are prancing fops who gleefully avoid responsibility for their actions due to the fact that they're patients at an asylum.

This is not only dark stuff, but subject matter that runs divergent with the sympathetic documentary Not Criminally Responsible, which was screened at last year's Festival Forum and explores violent crime, mental illness, and treatment versus the criminal justice system.

So I was confused by all of these references to politics and the Cold War; that is, until the second act commenced.

The play takes a huge turn in the second act, and what started out as a violent and slightly misogynistic comedy suddenly becomes quite profound.

Without giving too much away, not only do the murderers regret their crimes, we learn that they were sacrifices made on behalf of humanity. The ethics of science are debated and explored, calling to mind Jeff Goldblum's mathematician character from Jurassic Park who observed, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn't stop to think if they should!"

Further, the shortfalls of communism and western-style democracy are weighed against one another, before both are effectively trumped by unbridled capitalism. Given that the play was written in 1961, this constitutes an impressive feat of foresight by Dürrenmatt given the current global political climate.

All of this is played out in the lounge of the aforementioned aylum, in a power play that evokes the doomsday scenarios of comic books and the kind of villainy normally found in James Bond movies.

Suffice to say, it picks up in act two… significantly.

Throughout, the dialogue is clever, often pessimistic, and very funny. The performances animate this wily language in madcap proportions.

Geraint Wyn Davies, who this reviewer dubbed "the Festival’s reigning king of swagger," in his review of Hamlet, here goes in the complete opposite direction of that production's boorish Claudius. Wyn Davies' guilt-ridden physicist is meek, mousey; a soft-spoken pushover. It is a 180 in terms of Wyn Davies' usual bravado, and it's nicely played.

Seana McKenna has a very juicy role here as Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd, which only gets juicier as the action progresses. In a twisted way, her ultimate reveal and ruthless grab for power counters the rather passive and objectified first-act deaths of the play's other women.

Mike Nadajewski and Graham Abbey also star as fellow residents of the institution and, like almost everything else in this production, their roles get better as the plot advances. Also, was it just me or were there shades of the lilting voice of Sheldon Cooper from television's The Big Bang Theory in Abbey's portrayal of a sociopathic scientist?

Perhaps if there's one thing that didn't improve, it was the music that bookends the two acts. The song I'm All In by Metis (featuring Aynzli Jones) sets the scene nicely in the beginning with its spooky and melancholic piano riff and its infectious backbeat. However, the pop lyrics killed the mystique by curtain, and the volume was loud enough that many of us in the audience assumed it to be a technical error.

The Gazette has reviewed three shows thus far in the 2015 Festival season and all three have been utterly spectacular. There is so much in The Physicists for thinkers to enjoy, from violence and intrigue to politics of both the global and gender persuasion. There's also a heaping helping of sci-fi technobabble and larger than life characters- enough to make any nerd giggle manically while steepling their fingers in a malevolent fashion.

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