My First Theatre Review!

Possible Worlds — John Mighton


As far as I know, 1990’s Governor-General-Award-winning Possible Worlds is my first exposure to the works of playwright and mathematician John Mighton. This is also my first review of a play.

To detectives Berkley ( Michael Spencer-Davis) and Williams ( Gordon S. Miller), George Barker ( Cyrus Lane) is another victim in a bizarre series of crimes, murders in which each victim’s brain was stolen. Why someone would steal brains is unclear to the cops; it’s not as if human brains have a huge resale value. Consulting neurologist Penfield ( Sarah Orenstein) can provide few clues for the two detectives.

George Barker, meanwhile, seems curiously active for a man whose brain has been scooped out like tasty ice cream. George himself provides a possible explanation: not only does George accept the many worlds hypothesis, he claims to be able to experience any possible variation of his own life. The evidence appears to support him.

George explores world after world, always seeking out doppelgangers of a woman named Joyce ( Krystin Pellerin). In one world she is a scientist, in another a stock broker. In all of them, she is the one woman with whom George believes he can find happiness. Unfortunately for George, in none of the worlds he explores is the attraction mutual and long term.

Even more unfortunately for George, his killer can follow him wherever he flees.


I used to review audio-books for Publishers Weekly. According to my editor, I tended to focus on the text and ignore the performance. Watching Possible Worlds helped me grasp his point. I discovered that I was reacting to the venue, the staging, and the performance as much as I was to the text of the play. Alas, none of these non-textual factors did the play, or its actors, any favours.

The venue was Stratford’s Studio Theatre. The Studio has an interesting design from the point of view of someone with a bum leg, which is to say that it is (in my experience) the most aggressively-hostile-to-the-mobility-impaired venue in which I have ever watched a play. Possibly the architects schemed to pack in the maximum audience AND engineer good sightlines [1]; the seating is raked at a steep angle on three sides of the stage. There is only enough space between the seats to accommodate the legs of a seated person. Each ledge is very narrow and it is not raile d. If you stumble while edging along the narrow ledge past other patrons who arrived first, there’s a good chance that you will tumble all the way down to the stage level.

Did I mention in addition to having a bad knee I am also prone to benign paroxysmal positional vertigo?

In the theatre’s defense, they could have greased the ledges and lined the ground level floor with upward facing pikes, to impale the clumsy or unwary. They didn’t. So, go them. Still, I felt safer when navigating a cliff face on an active volcanic island than I did getting to my seat [2]. I will not be returning to this theatre.

It is my impression the theatre is not air conditioned, although that could be thanks to the interesting set design. The lowest level of the stage was flooded to a depth of a few inches—for reasons that were unclear to me. Nothing in the play called for it. The steam bath atmosphere in the theatre was no doubt in large part due to the evaporation of that water.

In addition to providing me with an unrequested reminder of my youth in the tropics, the water was a distraction throughout the play. I found myself wondering how they were going to get the water off the stage (the level seemed to drop throughout the play; let’s hope because there was a drain), watching as cloth laid on the floor became saturated, wondering how many of the cardboard banker’s boxes used as props the production went through and hoping that none of the actors would inadvertently drop electrical apparatus into the water, There was an adrenaline-filled spike of terror when one high-heeled actor was required to vault into the arms of a fellow actor.

Don’t get me wrong; I love a career-ending on-stage injury as much as the next person, but if you’re going to put the cast at risk, it should be for reasons other than “I thought of a cool thing we can do with this stage.” Just because you can pull off interesting technical tricks on stage does not mean that you should. The water was only part of it. Throughout the play, I found myself focusing on various staging details and wondering how the set designers and tech crew pulled off this or that effect. If I am paying attention to the sets and props, I am not paying attention to the performance. None of this made sense: very few of the interesting effects seemed mandated by the play itself.

There is some nudity (full frontal for Lane, topless for Pellerin). It was tasteful enough but the purpose was unclear. That would describe so much of this production.

The five actors (all veteran actors most of whom I had seen before in Canadian shows like Murdoch Mysteries and Republic of Doyle) did the best they could with the available material and under such circumstances. While Pellerin gets to try her hand at pulling a Tatiana Maslany, Berkley and Williams seemed the most rewarding roles in the play. It was probably for that reason that I warmed most to the actors playing those roles, Spencer-Davis and Miller.

Poor Orenstein was given little to do. Lane had plenty of material, but he found himself playing a less-than-appealing character (as I will explain below).

As for the play itself …

Mighton, the author, plays fair with the audience, at least far as the eventual resolution of the mystery goes. The explanation is pretty straightforward; what seem to be irreconcilable takes on events are reconciled. However, while I accept the mystery was not the point of the play, I did notice that the crucial discovery could have been made at the very beginning of the investigation, had the detectives done their jobs competently [3]. Berkley is distracted by his impending retirement; Williams is castigated on several occasions for his lack of intelligence [4].

I was also less than sympathetic with the main character, George, and his endless quest for Joyce. For a guy who is supposedly a genius, George seems remarkably unable to process the rejections he experiences from all the variations on Joyce he encounters. To quote …. someone but not Einstein, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

I think George’s quest for his one true love is supposed to be touching and romantic and all that stuff, but I saw it as George striding across dimensions in relentless pursuit of a woman who demonstrably is just not that into him. He’s the creepiest stalker ever [5]. I should perhaps add, in the play’s defense, that it was written a quarter century ago. This means that it predates Section 264 of the Criminal Code of Canada (which deals with the criminal harassment of which stalking is a subset) by three years. George’s steadfast refusal to recognise the obvious and the sympathetic view the play takes of his blindness simply reflects the archaic values of a long-ago era.

Possible Worlds is playing at Stratford’s Studio Theatre. Don’t forget to take a grapple and rope if you hope to reach your seat without mishap.

1: If good sightlines were a goal, the architects failed. Which parts of the stage were visible was highly contingent on where one was sitting; the set design did not take this into account.

2: On the way in, I saw a wheelchair tucked away in a corridor, which made me wonder how audience members with more significant handicaps than mine manage the peculiar features of this venue. Perhaps some of the staff carry them into the theatre in a fireman’s hold.

3: In many ways, the play reminded me of 2000’s effects-heavy film The Cell , in which a lot of effort goes into delving into a comatose murderer’s dreams in a bid to find out where he hid his last victim. As I recall, the dreamscape is all very pretty, but it’s basic police work that ultimately breaks the case.

4: Berkley derides Williams’s intelligence but Williams is the one who solves the case, not Berkley. Granted, his big epiphany seems to have been “Hey, did we ever check the closets?” But that’s more than Berkley managed.

5: There’s an alternative or at least additional interpretation, which is that George’s self-image determines the reality he finds himself in, which means he sees himself as a loser who cannot win Joyce even with the experience he has with various versions of her.

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