(l to r) Braden Griffiths, Karen Johnson-Diamond, Alana Hawley and Joel Cochrane. Photo Credit – Tim Nguyen
February 20 – March 2nd, 2013
Big Secret Theatre
You can hear my review on CBC’s Eyeopener at http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/2013/02/22/jessica-goldman-reviews-sequence/
A man sets up a ladder and proceeds to walk underneath it. He then opens an umbrella, smashes a hand mirror with a hammer and shouts “Macbeth”. These are the opening moments of the world premiere drama Sequence that right from the start doesn’t underestimate the audience’s ability to intelligently engage with the notion of luck and coincidence. It’s the creation of Calgary playwright/ophthalmologist Arun Lakra, the left brain/right brain talent who recently won the 2011 Alberta Playwrights Network’s competition for his Sequence script.
Thoughtfully directed by Kevin McKendrick, the play takes the form of two linear storylines that run complimentary to each other, only overlapping in theme and subject matter. There is mercifully no ‘aha’ moment when then the two stories somehow miraculously come together tying everything up in a neat little bow. Like I said, this is not mainstream showmanship for the masses.
One of the narratives deals with Theo (Joel Cochrane), who Time Magazine has called the luckiest man in the world because he is able to predict – with a perfect 20 year record– the coin toss at the Superbowl. His talents have made him not only famous, but very rich as Theo wagers double or nothing on each bet resulting in millions of dollars for his talents. At a lecture he is giving on how to gain some of his well-documented luck, he meets Cynthia (Alana Hawley), a young woman who has just discovered she’s pregnant and is concerned because she has a genetic disease in her family that can cause blindness. Cynthia has come with a closed envelope containing the test results of her baby and she wants Theo’s help, or actually his luck, to open the letter and read the results.
In the other thread we meet Dr. Guzman (Karen Johnson-Diamond), a flighty, wise-cracking science professor who is visited by Mr. Adamson (Braden Griffiths), a religiously faithful student that has the unbelievably bad luck to have completely failed a test by getting all 150 multiple choice answers wrong.
Dr. Guzman herself has some bad luck as well. She’s lost 92 percent of her vision due to her own genetic issue and by a fluke missed the opportunity to identify the disease gene when another scientist beat her to the punch and took all the glory.
The drama is well set up and the tensions that arise are perfectly plausible. But what takes this play to a whole other level is that in addition to the regular dialogue you’d expect from these narratives, are the inclusion of some very high-minded discussions involving mathematical theories, probabilities of coin tosses, inherited behaviour, recursive numerical sequences and the very heated genetics vs. the hand of God discussion. There’s a lot going on in this play and in the wrong hands it could end up feeling more like a lecture than a piece of entertainment.
But McKendrick does a fairly impressive job of making this cerebral story both theatrically palatable and engaging. The entire cast is always present on Terry Gunvordahl’s cleverly designed stage that keeps the props to a minimum and instead hangs silver balls in strings from the ceiling, giving the set a peptide chain-ish cool scientific esthetic. Each storyline populates their own side of the stage as the play flips, well-paced, back and forth between two narratives with the actors freezing in place when it’s not their turn. Occasionally McKendrick sends an actor into the frozen space of the other storyline making for both an interesting visual mashup and underlining the metaphorical connection between the two plotlines. Thankfully also mashed into the play amongst all the math/science talk is quite a bit of humour and opportunity for the characters to show their humanness – their flaws and fears and ego.
For the most part McKendrick allows the lighter parts to work nicely alongside the heavier material without playing too hard for the laughs. However both script-wise and with the staging, Theo and Cynthia’s story worked far better than the professor/student narrative which felt a little forced both in dialogue delivery in the way the characters physically interacted with each other. There is no question that Sequence is an incredibly challenging play to stage and despite the weaker thread, I give McKendrick full credit for his vision in this production.
Credit must also go to the decent cast for bringing this interesting story to life. My only quibble with the performances was Johnson-Diamond, who played Dr. Guzman’s quirkiness overly hard and as a result just wasn’t altogether believable as a professor. She seemed too caught up with nailing the timing of the jokes to really embody her character and bring the confidence and arrogance that a science professor ought to have. Conversely, Hawley’s Cynthia was the perfect embodiment of her character. She got the math geek-speak spot on while still being a sexy strong woman who challenges Theo and his whole rationale of what luck really is. You believed that she was frightened for her baby and was struggling with what to do next. It was a truly remarkable performance from a tremendously strong actress who continues to impress me.
Sequence will not appeal to everyone. It’s not a show you can watch passively and expect easy entertainment. This play challenges the audience with smart dialogue about complex ideas and forces them to work for their reward. But do not fear, even if you are as utterly hopeless when it comes to math and high level science as I am, you will be able to keep up and find great enjoyment in the concepts presented. However, my greatest enjoyment came from not being given neatly packaged answers to the questions raised in the script. Instead Sequence gives you lots to chew on both in the eventual arc of the plot and in the bigger questions raised. Nothing makes me happier than to be excited by a new Calgary play. Sequence may not be perfect on every level, but it was absolutely one of the most dynamic and intriguing shows I’ve seen this year
For the guys and the girls – They say the spoils of hard work are the most treasured. Sequence isn’t overly hard, but it does challenge. The entertaining results will give you much to think and talk about long after the play is done. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Perhaps this is asking too much of you when all you really want is to be entertained. SKIP IT
For the theater junkie – You’ll like it so much that you’ll want the weaker parts fixed immediately so that this play can shine even brighter. But even in its non-perfect state it will be one of the most interesting and well-conceived shows you’ve had the pleasure of seeing. SEE IT