Wednesday, October 7, 2015

9th Canadian Challenge - 6th Review - Possible Worlds

This will be a joint review of the Mighton's Possible Worlds and the recent Stratford production of the play.  I believe that they used the 2nd revised edition of the play (from 1997) and that is the version I read and will review.  This is actually the second time I have done this, with Findley's Elizabeth Rex the first time around.  Whenever I finally wrap up my review of Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, I will be working from the same playbook.

Generally the reviews were positive (Now and The Star gave 4 and 3.5 stars respectively).  The Globe and Mail reviewer was really put off by the watery set and kept thinking about how uncomfortable it would be to perform in a pool of water.  (I half suspect that he got wet in the first moments of the show and never forgave the production...)  It is definitely different.  The pre-opening scene does seem a bit reminscent of Anatomy of a Murder, and I wondered if there was going to be a  connection to The Physicists where the audience sees chalk outlines in both acts.

However, when the lights come up, there is an actor gasping like a fish and struggling to get into the wet clothes (occasionally spraying water on the audience).  It reminded me quite a bit of that moment when Bruce Willis manages to go back in time in Twelve Monkeys, and I thought that was going to be the marker for how they showed the main character, George, went between the various worlds, but that wasn't how it played out during the play.

While the Stratford production has closed, and there probably won't be a local production for years and years, I'll go into quite a bit of detail about the final resolution of the play, so SPOILER alert.


I had basically imagined this was going to be what it said on the tin, with George able to slip between parallel worlds, sort of like Sliding Doors.  He explained at one point that he could imagine a world where he knew the answer to some math problem, and he willed himself to go into that quantum future, rather than the one where he was struggling to solve the problem.  That still doesn't entirely explain how he could solve fairly complex risk analysis questions in his head (unless he could "walk" a bit down the road in an alternative future (perhaps a future where he had a calculator) and then return with the answer).  The main difference in the worlds seemed to be how well he knew Joyce and whether she was quite stand-offish to him or was receptive to his advances.  Naturally, he spent a bit more time in the world where she started dating him.

Then there is a subplot about men being killed and their brains removed, apparently with a super advanced technology.  So it sort of sets up expectations that there is an alien being that is tracking George through the different worlds (maybe a bit like Philip Jose Farmer's The World of Tiers), and he gets increasingly paranoid about it.  (I found it kind of interesting that the main detective in the "real world" -- Berkley -- starts getting weirded out by the case and starting to ponder the futility of his role.  He actually reminds me a lot of the chief inspector in The Physicists.)

Well, it turns out that is not the case at all.  (SPOILERS)  There are no aliens.  George was indeed abducted and his brain removed, but then it was attached to a bunch of wires and suspended in a saline solution and all the scenes with Joyce are just sort of a fugue dream state.  (And it also explains why the whole set is so wet.)  This is the same general idea behind The Matrix.  It is worth noting that the play was originally written in 1988, well before The Matrix, or Sliding Doors, or even Twelve Monkeys, though the general concepts have been around in science fiction for a long time.

So his amazing math abilities are either the brain working out a problem in advance and then presenting it as a problem to be solved instantly, or in fact, it might all be a bluff, like when you are dreaming you can speak a foreign language, but in fact it is all garbled (which you would know if your dreams were recorded with absolute fidelity).

On the whole, this was an entertaining night out, and the idea that one can idealize on one's partner so much that you think about her in many different ways, even when just a brain suspended in a jar.  But I am detail oriented, and I generally pick at things (particularly science fiction plots), and over time I just find so many plot holes that it jars me.  Consequently, I don't feel as highly about the play now as when I watched it.

Number 1 -- the production intentionally blurs the lines between the real world and George's dream worlds.  I think this is a mistake, even if Berkley and his assistant Williams have a throw-away line about what if they are essentially brains in some other jar.

That leads into another problem of why events that happen in the "real world" seem impossible.  How could the scientist have taken off the top of George's head without leaving any marks?  She is simply a crazed scientist not someone with bizarrely advanced (or alien) technology.  And what is this business about one of the witnesses freezing to death at room temperature?  I would accept that in the dream world, but not in the real world.  Sure, it is just another throw-away gag (only a few lines), but it basically means there are no ground rules, even in the real world, and thus there are no true stakes involved in the play.  I don't like plays like that where everything is "just a dream."

Number 2 -- and this is more fundamental problem.  I can understand why George would continually be thinking of Joyce as the love of his life (every other minute essentially), but why would he not simply think about his life with her as the married couple that they were?  I guess I could be convinced that the brain somehow knows something is dreadfully wrong (the scientist is the shadowy figure that is trying to kill him in all the worlds) but it would have been a bit more convincing if he kept restarting from a point where they were married and then either he or Joyce is put in danger continually.  I understand how in dreams one can run through all kinds of permutations, but I just don't get why he would be restarting from scratch in just getting to know Joyce when in fact they were married and had a long history together.  To me that is a pretty significant weakness.

Also, as a side note, he comes up with a very strange alien world, sort of a post-apocalyptic future where people only know three words, but why would he bother?  Indeed, this seems a big distraction from the main point of rekindling a relationship with Joyce (and the story doesn't seem one that would help woo her).  Overall, this seems like something that a linguist might come up with in a fever dream, but not a stock broker (sorry, financial analyst), even one who was married to a biologist.  It's kind of interesting, in the production anyway, but again, it is a total red herring, and really doesn't advance the plot at all (or at least not in a way that makes sense to me).

It's hard to really sum up this play.  The scenes between George and Joyce are good, but the underlying conceit undermines them, at least when one thinks about it after the big reveal.  I definitely didn't care for the way this production smooshes the real world and the dream worlds together, and I felt that Mighton cheats the audience unnecessarily.  But then it sounds like I hated the play, and that isn't the case either.  I just am disappointed that it didn't really follow through on a promising premise, though to be honest I would have been far more interested in a play where the main character did shift between parallel worlds and this wasn't just the workings of a dying brain in a jar.  Still, the approach Mighton did take could have been better with a bit more rigor.  Perhaps there is another parallel world where either the play was better constructed or my overall reception of it was less critical.

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