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BWW Review: Stratford Festival's THE PHYSICISTS is Delightfully Disturbing

If you happen to be coming to Stratford Festival looking for a show that makes you laugh, think, and question whether the human race is doomed, all in equal measure...then look no further than director Miles Potter's disturbingly delightful production of THE PHYSICISTS. If you did not know you were looking for a show that did those things to you...well, trust me. You are. Come see this show.

Written by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and adapted by Canadian playwright Michael Healey, THE PHYSICISTS is a satirical tragicomedy about three physicists who have been declared to be mentally ill and institutionalized in a Sanitarium run by a quirky and secretive Psychiatrist (played brilliantly by Seana McKenna). Two of the men believe themselves to be Einstein and Newton whilst the other claims he has had visions of King Solomon. Nurses keep dying and it quickly becomes apparent that things are not what they seem. Full of fun plot twists, deliciously dark humour, and a powerful satire that speaks to social responsibility, this show keeps the audience on the edge of its seat.

The strongest part of THE PHYSICISTS has got to be the incredibly rich (and somewhat ridiculous) characters that it possesses-All brought to life by a fantastic company of actors. Geraint Wyn Davies is heartbreaking as the tormented Johann Wilhelm Mobias, man who has lived at the Sanitarium for twelve years and whose scientific discoveries could alter the world forever if they were ever shared. Graham Abbey portrays Herbert Georg Beutler-another physicist, who has been deemed mentally ill for believing that he is Sir Isaac Newton. Mr. Abbey is hilarious is this role. He glides about the stage like a gazelle, seemingly amused and unconcerned by the murders of young nurses or anything else going on in the asylum. As Ernst Heinrich Ernesti (AKA Einstein), Mike Nadajewski is equally as engaging and funny-disheveled, wandering aimlessly, and confused about the murder he has just committed. Each of these characters are not exactly what they appear to be either, and as the play is enveloped in dark and delightful twists and turns, these actors are up to the task of making the men they play increasingly fascinating.

Seana McKenna is absolutely excellent as the complicated and mysterious Frauleun Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd. With her hunched back, white hair and dark rimmed glasses, (excellent costume design all-around by Gillian Gallow), Doktor von Zahnd seemingly has a soft spot for the three physicists and is very passionate about the facility that she runs. It becomes abundantly clear; however, that she too, is not exactly what she appears to be.

As police detective Richard Voss, Randy Hughson brings a sense of confusion, frustration, and eventual resignation to the fact that justice will not be served for the murdered nurses. His initial pursuit for justice is only surpassed by his pursuit of the elusive bottle of Cognac hidden within the asylum. Claire Lautier makes an excellent turn as Monika Stettler, a nurse desperately in love with (real life husband) Wyn Davies' Mobius. As Mobius' ex-wife and her new husband, Jane Spidell and Sean Arbuckle are great, as are their children portrayed by: Parker Merlihan, Felix Kropf-Untucht, and Cailyn Mann.

As true motivations are revealed, it becomes clear that like with (the real) Einstein and the Atom bomb, scientists today must be constantly aware of the potential negative consequences that their discoveries could lead to. Even if they are aware; however, the question that this play raises is could they stop such consequences even if they tried? "What is thought cannot be unthought" Mobius states at a crucial moment in the play when he realizes the apparent inevitability of his theoretical discoveries finding their way into the world. Though the satire in this play relates heavily to the cold war, it continues to be an important allegory for audiences today as well.

In a play filled with disturbing revelations and dark humour, the most disturbing thing of all is that nothing that happens within the play is any more horrific or grotesque than real current and historical world events. The audience is constantly reminded of this by the characters themselves. The Atom bomb-and Einstein's involvement is mentioned on several occasions, themes and costumes near the end of the play bring on images of Nazi Germany, at one point, a character states "I was just following orders" in an attempt to admonish himself of a crime. All of these moments remind us of how dark humanity is capable of being.

In the Director's Notes, Miles Potter comments that unlike a tragic play, "A comedy, no matter how grotesque, will make room for hope." The sense of hope certainly exists at the end of this play. Certainly, it casts a gloomy picture for what the world could become, and how the protagonist's misguided and somewhat quixotic attempts at protecting the world proved fruitless...but rather than exiting the theatre filled with pessimism, audiences exited the theatre engaged in meaningful and thought provoking conversation. Mr. Healey's adaptation, Mr. Potter's direction, and the entire casts' performances hit the exact right tone for this exhilarating piece of theatre. I plan to see it again.

THE PHYSICISTS continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 27, 2015.

Photo Credit: David Hou

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