STRATFORD — The Stratford Festival’s new production of John Mighton’s award-winning Possible Worlds begins with the sight of a man’s naked body, dead in a pool of water.
The imagery is bold but not quite real. The lighting is dank, the soundscape ominous. Near the body, silhouetted in the water, is his clothing, evoking the shape and substance of what he once was. And then the corpse pulls himself back to life — well, at least, a sort of life. But there’s a questing element to all this as he splashes through the water and dresses himself in his soaking garments.
And if we’re not sure at this point who or what he is, neither — we suspect — is he.
It’s the sort of moment that can have us retrieving pop-culture references out of our own consciences. William Holden looking down on his own murdered corpse in Norma Desmond’s swimming pool in Sunset Boulevard? Or maybe Jeff Bridges struggling into a form of being in Starman? Or is this simply how my own particular world responds at a particular moment in time in watching the play?
Possible Worlds constantly opens up possibilities — and we in the audience are capable of multiple responses. It addresses the mind and strokes the imagination and rouses our consciousness. And to what end?
Director Mitchell Cushman understands that this a play that occupies its own dimension, that it cannot be anchored in reality as we know it. Its naturalistic moments — and there are many — can still seem ethereal; reach out to them, and you may find that they dissolve, which is what happens with two characters at one telling moment in this endlessly fascinating play.
We learn that the dead man is a stockbroker named George, that his brain has been stolen, that a part of him exists outside of what we know as time, that he’s capable of rebirth in another world. Or at least this what we think we learn — as we watch George constantly replaying the central relationship of his life with a woman named Joyce. The shifting dynamics here, ranging from the subtle to the not so subtle, never lose their touch of the otherworldly, of something not quite attainable but nonetheless asserting its presence. The nuanced work of Cyrus Lane as George and Krystin Pellerin as Joyce is responsible for the rueful quality threading its way through these individual moments. But there’s something else happening here as well — the same thing that night happen if we listen to a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in all its infinite mystery. This production, in the festival’s intimate Studio Theatre, asks us to forego our need for a linear interpretation and to accept Possible Worlds as a dramatic meditation, a tone poem.
Mighton wrote this play 25 years ago. In his exploration of time and the possibility of parallel universes and lives, he was following in the footsteps of J.B. Priestley who in the Thirties had probed the riddle of time in a succession of intriguing plays. The sympathetic shade of science fiction master Philip A Dick also hovers over the script for Possible Worlds, and there are glimpses as well of the metaphysical mysteries of Charles Williams, friend to both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. One even wonders whether Mighton, in a pop-culture moment, might have read John Blackburn’s A Sour Apple Tree.
In the years since this play premiered, its themes continue to show up in various forms — in popular pieces like the movies, Sliding Doors and Groundhog Day, in playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s ingenious Communicating Doors, and more recently in works by two major novelists, Kate Atkinson and Sebastian Faulks.
But Possible Worlds, the product of an accomplished dramatist who also happens to be a philosopher and mathemetician, poses its own challenges.
Cushman may seem vulnerable to accusations of directorial self-indulgence in turning the Studio Theatre stage into a watery playing area in which even the script’s two cops are forced to slosh around as they pursue these nefarious criminals who keep removing brains from corpses. But this play has clearly made this gifted young director something of a questing spirit. Stratford’s production marks the third time that he’s tackled it, and his notes in the printed program suggest that he wants to continue exploring the possibility of new worlds in Possible Worlds — that this is a play that encourages him to keep ringing the changes.
So what about the grey and watery set that designer Anahita Dehbonehie has given us? There, is for example, the fact that some scenes have specific watery connections — there are beach sequences, and Joyce is a swimmer. More significantly, this design can work as an other-worldly milieu for a play built on dramatic fragments as ethereal as a fleeting ripple on water, on imagery which doesn’t so much linger as wash over you. And there is also something primal about liquid — whether it exists in our oceans and waterways or in the amniotic fluid that asserts a metaphoric presence in the production’s opening moments, or in the fluid preserving the detached brains that hang ominously in shimmering cubes over the stage.
Mighton’s play is not just about possible worlds but possible textures when it comes communicating its inner life in performance. And yes, there is the danger of a bold visual concept ending up as more of a distraction than anything else. But Cushman and his creative colleagues seem to have thought this one through sufficiently to pull themselves back from the edge when necessary.
The production is very much of a collective achievement, and those sharing in its impact include Dehbonehie (set), Dana Osborne (costumes), Kimberley Purtell (lighting), Nick Bottomley (projections) and Christopher Stanton (sound). There is an eerie, surrealistic beauty to those holographic images that take shape in the water, to the emergence of a grey ghostly daguerrotype of an undefinable woman, even to those mundane file boxes that eventually litter the play’s watery landscape. And is George Barber’s consciousness playing tricks on him when he pours from a bottomless vessel that never runs out of liquid or when he finds he can summon endless golf balls from his mouth? Or is our consciousness being stretched as we watch? Let’s just say that well-known Canadian conjuror David Ben makes a valuable contribution to this production as magic consultant.
Cyrus Lane gives George an attractive stage presence. But beyond that he brings off the difficult feat of bringing reality and sympathy to a character who can never be completely with us. Kristin Pellerin, of Republic of Doyle fame, may be giving us a Joyce who is the constant in George’s life, even his anchor to reality. Yet, in this beautifully modulated performance, we also get shifting identities — from the shy and retiring to the forceful and assertive. Or we getting mere reflections of George’s own shifting perceptions of her?
The play does have its funny moments, which are well cultivated in this production. But we get comedy at its most anxious in the excellent performances of Michael Spencer-Davis as a veteran cop named Berkley and Gordon S. Miller as a floundering colleague named Williams. In their troubled encounters with the unfathomable, there are echoes of Vladimir and Estrogen in their endless wait for Godot.
And then there is Sarah Orenstein as a brain-stealing neuroscientist named Penfield consumed by her own personal agenda. Orenstein effectively delivers a somewhat creepy performance, but this character remains the play’s most puzzling occupant. That’s because Penfield was initially a male character, and to bestow that name on someone involved in this particular research field immediately makes you wonder whether Mighton was paying peculiar homage to a real-life figure — the legendary Canadian neurosurgeon, Dr. Wilder Penfield.
In her obsession with the brain, Orenstein’s Penfield is far less sympathetic character than the historic Penfield who was a remarkable thinker as well as a medical pioneer. But there’s a moment when the Penfield of the play asks, “why do we have imagination?” When that happens, we have firm linkage to the questions that preoccupied Wilder Penfield when he talked about temporal lobes and the mystery of consciousness which he saw as having a “distinct and different essence.” Wilder Penfield once famously observed that the challenge of neurology was “to understand man himself.” That, in a sense, was the problem confronted by Mighton in this play, and the challenge faced by Cushman in giving utterance to them on stage. Yet, the fascinating journey this director has embarked on continues to be unfinished. He has still not exhausted the possible worlds of this play. One hopes his journey will continue.