Chet Greason, firstname.lastname@example.org
There were mutterings of “I don’t get it,” in the lobby of the Studio Theatre following the premiere of Possible Worlds on July 15. This I overheard from at least two patrons, both of them older women, following the 90-minute, no-intermission production by Canadian playwright and mathematician John Mighton and director Mitchell Cushman.
Personally, I didn’t have any trouble following the action of the play. But I can empathize with how the non-linear narrative with a heavy focus on neuroscience and the nature of thought could seem labyrinthine. I don’t think my understanding of the play had anything to do with my comprehension level being higher than these ladies’, either; instead, the fact that I’ve watched a ton of television and movie sci-fi had me more properly prepped for the subject matter.
The play’s dreamlike pastiche of conversations and scenarios that deal with questions of consciousness and existence at first resembled the Richard Linklater film Waking Life. However, as the story moves forward, you discover that the plot is, in fact, quite linear, with each new scene giving you a possible explanation as to what’s going on.
What we know at the outset is that there’s a murderer running around stealing people’s brains, and that our protagonist, George (Cyrus Lane) appears to be one of the victims. But that doesn’t stop George from flitting in and out of an ongoing romance with an enigmatic woman named Joyce (Krystin Pellerin). A shy neurologist in one scene, a brazen club girl in the next, the only things constant about Joyce are her bright red garments.
Interspersed between the George and Joyce narrative are a pair of detectives investigating the murders, senior cop Berkley (Michael Spencer-Davis) and his junior partner Williams (Gordon S. Miller). Sarah Orenstein also appears as an expert on the human brain named Penfield, (as in, ‘Dr. Penfield, I can smell burnt toast!’ of Canadian Heritage Minute fame.)
The interaction of these characters begin to flesh out the possibilities of what we’re seeing and why. Is it all a Matrix-style manipulation? Tampered memories à la Total Recall? Some unexplained anomaly resulting in an endless time loop like we see in Groundhog Day? An example of Timothy Leary’s theory regarding the last endless moments of brain activity before death? A treatise on the butterfly effect as found in Run Lola Run? Or some audacious mad science born of the same vein as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die? In the end, a resolution, incorporating aspects of most of these scenarios, is clearly given.
The sci-fi comparisons don’t end there, either. The hazy, neon, soaking wet set looks straight out of Blade Runner. Berkley and Williams occupy a surrealist noir melodrama akin to Twin Peaks or an episode of The Twilight Zone. There’s even some David Blaine-like legerdemain to further mystify the audience.
Also mystifying is a permanent stage submerged under a few inches of water, soaking the feet of the performers. The program explains that this was done to create a dream-like atmosphere. One might worry that the constant sloshing around would prove distracting, but it’s actually the opposite. The water is utilized by the players, thrown around or floated upon, until it almost becomes a sixth character. Still, it gives the performance a rather cold, uncomfortable feel, and you can’t help but sympathize with the actors who spend the duration in wet clothing.
Lane’s character changes as often as the world around him. I hesitate to say it, but there’s something very Nicholas Cage about the way he’s sobbing one moment and grinning manically the next, soft-shoeing and whistling Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head. It could be that it’s not so much Lane that evokes Cage, but rather the role itself; something you could readily see the notorious actor tackling with relish.
Pellerin’s Joyce is even more fluid than George, changing substantially with every scene. It must be an extremely challenging role in more ways than one, but Pellerin owns it; managing to make Joyce unequivocally Joyce despite the vast fluctuations in character.
Miller and Spencer-Davis are the sources of the show’s humour and clarification. The two play an embodiment of comedy and tragedy, with Williams the ever optimist and Berkley growing more wrought with despair as his investigation gets increasingly convoluted.
Orenstein is a melodically-voiced puppet master that is made of equal parts vamp and steel, a character straight out of a comic book. The play would’ve benefitted from more of her.
My advice to viewers: Don’t panic while watching Possible Worlds. Take it in and know it will all make perfect sense in 90 minutes. By its conclusion, you’ll see it’s a brilliant piece of written work brought to life by a talented cast and a director with an mischievous eye for beguilement and misdirection.