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Thursday, 28 May 2015

Review: The Physicists delights but lacks punch

ThePhysicists, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Adapted by Michael Healey, based on a translation by Birgit Schreyer Duarte
(World première)
Directed by Miles Potter
Designed by Peter Hartwell (set), Gillian Gallow (costumes), Steve Lucas (lighting), ToddCharlton (sound)
L-R: Mike Nadajewski as Ernesti / Einstein, Geraint Wyn Davies as Mobius
and Graham Abbey as Kilton/Newton. Photo by David Hou
The story (which contains spoilers) is thus: three physicists in a sanatorium – one thinks he is Sir Isaac Newton, one believes he is Einstein, and the last, Möbius, believes King Solomon visits him on a regular basis. However, it turns out that none of them are insane - Einstein and Newton are actually spies for different agencies, sent to keep an eye on Möbius , the super-genius who has solved some of physics’ biggest problems. Both Einstein and Newton have killed nurses who discovered their secrets - for the greater good, of course. Einstein’s agency wants to share these answers to benefit mankind, Newton’s agency wants them for pure scientific study, but Möbius believes his ideas could doom mankind and is determined to keep them secret at all cost, even murdering the nurse who loved him to do so. Möbius reasons that they are none of them are truly free, and that they must be held accountable for the murders they committed. They vow to stay in the asylum and work together for science. However their psychiatrist Fräulein Doktor von Zahnd reveals that she knows their secrets, has stolen Mobius’ research and has sold his ideas for commercial gain. The men are trapped and retreat into their alter-ego identities as the Fräulein Doktor takes her now enormous corporation private.

When The Physicists premiered on Broadway in 1964, the Cold War had the Western World in its grip of paranoia and the Cuban missile crisis is a very recent memory. Weaponized nuclear science is the core of this fear, a science that is badly explained by politicians and media.  Out of this comes Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play of “big ideas” that can be dangerous when known to parties with different philosophies. Which philosophy is correct? Who gets to use these big ideas and to what end?

Members of the company in The Physicists.
Photo by David Hou
Leap ahead 51 years. There are invisible threats in the world from malware, identity thieves and home-grown terrorists, and at least in Canada, the current federal regime has been muzzling the scientific community for nearly a decade. Secrets are kept and revealed by vigilante hackers. So, nothing much has changed… except for the technology and speed at which things happen.

Michael Healey’s adaptation of Dürrenmatt’s Cold War play certainly brings the play’s language into the 21st Century; nurse #2 is strangled with an ipod charging cord, the insane asylum is now a “healing institute” and there are references to computers, bankers, mixed martial artists and fan fiction.  There are still throwbacks to the 1960’s in the nurse and police uniforms, and a throwback to Newton’s time with the armillary chandelier (although it could be an atom), but all in all the language of this adaptation is relevant and witty - perfect for Canadian audiences, so willing to laugh at ourselves and our leaders.

Graham Abbey as Beutler / Newton / Kilton.
Photo by David Hou
However, for a play that is full of plot-twists and grand reveals, the final denouement is not much of one for a modern audience. Given two minutes to think about it, it should come as no surprise that the real villain is a fanatical capitalist, the head of a giant corporation that has appropriated scientific ideas for monetary gain. This is so high on our collective radars that while it seems clever and indeed handled in a highly comedic way, it is not surprising at all.  So while the play seems fresh and relevant, at the end this adaptation lacks the knock-out punch the original must have produced.
Mike Nadajewski as Ernesti/Einstein and Geraint
Wyn Davies as 
Möbius. Photo by David Hou
That is not necessarily the fault of the text but rather a failure to realize just how savvy the audience has become in the last five decades. Also, this is not to say that the philosophies debated are any less debatable now, or that our moral compasses are in any less need of adjusting. We should still be horrified at injustices done in the name of law, wary of paranoia created by technological ignorance and cautious of leaping blindly onto whatever bandwagons Madmen (pun completely intended) create.

The production is solid – Miles Potter at the helm does provide the mixture of comedy-tragedy he does so well, albeit with much more gallows humour than usual. He makes no bones about the fact he believes corporations are the world’s current evil-doers, including dollar signs on the SWAT-team’s Armani uniforms like badges of honour. As Newton, Graham Abbey’s brand of understated wit suits the character perfectly, as does Mike Nadajewski’s distracted vehemence as Einstein. Seana McKenna is relishes in her role as the maniacal sociopath Fraulein Doktor (her look channelling Linda Hunt), and Geraint Wyn Davies’ constantly anxious, fearful Möbius convinces everyone, not just the other physicists, of the dangers they have created.
Seana McKenna as Fräulein Doktor
Mathilde von Zahnd. Photo by David Hou.
All in all this is a play for our times indeed, it just does not leave as much open for debate as one would expect from a play about the philosophy of politics of science.  The Physicists continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 27th. 
Geraint Wyn Davies as Möbius. Photo by David Hou




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