A cathartic and hopeful delving into the philosophical questions about who we are at our core
Lucid Ludic’s devised production of Brain Storm, a hit at the 2017 Toronto Fringe (winning that year’s Tosho Knife Cutting Edge Award) returns in a production at Dancemakers Studio in association with Why Not Theatre. The show shares vignettes from a young woman’s frustrating attempts at recovery from the literal cutting edge of brain surgery. Kate (Shayna Virginillo) was a playwright; now she can’t read, and the simplest tasks, like riding the subway, are fraught with discomfort and peril.
One phrase plays on repeat in Kate’s mind, linking her to her deceased spirit medium grandmother (Hayley Carr), who acted as a writing vessel for the words of spirits. One of these spirits, fittingly, is that of renowned Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (Alexandra Montagnese and Maïza Dubhé) – yes, the Heritage Minute gets a reference – who proclaims his belief that death is not the end, but consciousness on a different frequency.
Playwright and director Taliesin McEnaney deals with deep, unsettling philosophical questions, as the brain is vital to our understanding of self, yet we still don’t completely understand it. If the brain is the self, its alteration causes a fundamental rethinking of identity and expectations. With all of Kate’s auditory, visual, and cognitive struggles, the hardest lesson for her to learn is that recovery doesn’t mean becoming exactly the same person you were.
At the same time, how do we reconcile the persistent belief of the soul with the knowledge we do have – that electrically stimulating certain parts of the brain can reliably have specific results? Is a spiritual awakening real if it comes from a small electrical pulse? Can the self be reduced to moments of electricity? These questions aren’t answered – they can’t be – but rather dangle deliciously in front of our noses in a stylized production.
The cutting-edge part of the show is its visual representation of the effects of issues in the brain, allowing us to gain Kate’s perspective. Projections by Melissa Joakim onto mobile, white-sheeted, hospital-like dividers (set and costumes by Will Bezek) capture everything from a wisp of a childhood memory, to visual disturbances, to attempts at drawing from our protagonist.
Movement also enriches the experience, with synchronized doctoring (two different actresses often play Penfield at once) and scenes of Kate’s distorted perception of the outside world creating an unsettling experience. The encroaching doctors have an eerie, ghostly presence, white-powdered faces matching their vintage white, high-necked surgical smock gowns.
They often move in ethereally, absurdly slow motion, drifting through the scene like medical tumbleweeds. On the other hand, in a coffee shop they become loud and over-bright, invasive and derisive at the blink of an eye, a reminder that this is anything but Kate’s former normal.
It’s a hard task to show us her loss, because we meet her after the surgery; still, Virginillo plays Kate’s bewilderment and growing anger effectively. Kate’s changed normal is emphasized by Montagnese, who shines as Kate’s supremely awkward friend with a talent for saying exactly the most offensive, wrong, or self-involved thing possible at every turn.
She’s even better as one of Penfield’s incarnations, especially in an extended scene where the doctor shows off the reactions that can be triggered by introducing electric current to various parts of the brain. With Virginillo as the patient, it’s in turn nightmarish and oddly transcendent.
Given the Pandora’s Box of questions the show unleashes, it feels like there is more to say by the time it’s over, despite an ending that gives us both catharsis and hope. With its subject matter, this is not a show that should be expected to play by strict narrative rules, and it’s refreshing to leave the journey realistically unfinished.
However, I found myself wanting to know more about Kate’s grandmother, since much of her role here was to be a vessel for others’ ideas. The character, her identity as a spiritual medium, and her connection to Kate seemed to cry out for further exploration. As Kate explores her life’s second act, the play could have one, too; it’s such a rich world.
Brain Storm is a fascinating look at what makes us who we are. Let the electrical impulses in your head dwell on it for a while.
- Brain Storm plays until March 8, 2020, at Dancemakers Studio (9 Trinity St., Third Floor)
- Shows run Tuesday-Friday at 8:00PM, with Sunday 2:00PM matinees and a Saturday 2:00PM matinee March 7th.
- Tickets are Pay What You Can Afford ($8-60) and can be purchased online or at the door.
- Every show is a Relaxed Performance, with five performances being open-captioned.
Photo of Shayna Virginillo, Hayley Carr, Maïza Dubhé, and Alexandra Montagnese by Dahlia Katz