Exploring the science of life
Amy Amantea and Jake Anthony in Sequence, which runs March 14-24 at Presentation House Theatre. (photo by Tim Matheson)
“To direct this play requires a willingness to grapple with the concepts, to accept that sometimes questions are more important than answers, not everything is answerable, and to be committed to entertaining possibilities. It’s heady stuff,” director Rena Cohen told the Independent about Sequence, which opens next week at Presentation House in North Vancouver.
Describing the play as “a science thriller that will challenge as much as it entertains,” Cohen, who is also managing artistic director of Realwheels Theatre, explained, “In Sequence, we follow two absorbing stories. In one, a professor confronts a student who’s defied probability by taking a multiple-choice exam only to get every answer – 150 of them – wrong (the chance of achieving this is one in a pentillion). In the second story, the ‘Luckiest Man Alive’ – his status cemented by his uncanny ability to predict the winner of the Super Bowl coin toss for 20 years running – is confronted by a young woman who claims to know his secret.
“Each of these narratives is presented coherently, cleverly and simultaneously, and it’s how they intertwine through ‘wormholes’ in the dialogue that makes the play fascinating, and mystifying. Playwright Arun Lakra compares the structure of the play to two strands of intertwining DNA. You could argue it’s comparable to a Möbius strip-like dramatic encounter. You’re following two narratives, only to have the carpet swept out from under you.”
For readers who don’t have Wikipedia or a dictionary handy, a Möbius strip, or band, is “a surface with only one side and only one edge. It can be made using a strip of paper by gluing the two ends together with a half-twist.” It’s a non-orientable surface, which means it “cannot be moved around the surface and back to where it started so that it looks like its own mirror image.” The example given for further explanation, is that “no matter what, a human right hand, cannot be rotated in such a way that it becomes a human left hand. The right hand is, therefore, orientable.”
How does one direct a play like Sequence so that it’s enjoyable and comprehensible?
“There are ways we harness the ‘language of theatre’ to capture audiences’ attention, to heighten a moment,” said Cohen. “Sometimes, it’s in the way an actor delivers a line, the way they land on a phrase containing important information. We also signal key moments using lighting and/or sound, so even if, when information doesn’t necessarily register on a conscious level, you absorb it.’”
The material of the play – “Wading into new intellectual territory, learning the mathematical concepts used to understand randomness and probability” – was initially a challenge for Cohen.
“My last physics course was in high school, the last time I studied math was in CEGEP [a post-secondary school program in Quebec] and I’ve never taken a biology course,” she said, “so some of the references in the play – regarding genetics, for example – may not be complicated to a Grade 10 biology student, but they’ve been a challenge to me.
“Sequence is also very fast-paced, and there’s a ton of stage business, most of which is – incidentally – performed by Amy Amantea, our actor who lives with blindness. She’s fearless.”
And, added Cohen, “Working with an integrated cast of performing artists with disabilities and able-bodied artists means there’s a wider range of experience, and we’re challenged to become an ensemble in a few short weeks.”
Amantea (as the professor) will be joined in the performance by actors Jake Anthony (the student), Byron Noble (the “luckiest man”) and Krista Skwarok (the woman who purports to know his secret).
“Two members of the cast live with disability: Amy is legally blind and Jake lives with autism,” said Cohen. “The casting speaks to our (Realwheels’) commitment to fostering interchange between mainstream and disability arts sectors. That means interchange between artists, and we’re all learning from each other.
“Amy Amantea has such a generous spirit, so much heart and decency and, in Sequence, she’s playing a dark, angry character. Her character is also very funny and over-the-top, and this is new territory for Amy, who left the performing arts after she lost her sight 11 years ago. Furthermore, Amy’s character lives with severe sight loss, but of a type that’s different from her own, so there’s a whole other layer of challenge. She also has the most ‘stage business.’
“Jake Anthony is a sensitive actor, and an incredible advocate for persons with autism; getting to know him means gaining appreciation for the gifts that accompany autism,” continued Cohen. “Jake is a decisive and determined individual, very focused, so lovely and respectful to everyone, and he’s bringing tremendous insight into his character, a young man of faith, and an inveterate optimist.”
Skwarok is a recent graduate of Langara College’s Studio 58 theatre program, said Cohen, “and this is her first professional gig. Such bright energy, she’s super-smart and quick and creative and game. Expect to see a lot more of her – Krista’s talent is explosive.”
As for Noble, Cohen said he “is loaded with charm.” In Sequence, she said, his character “is slick, playful and, yes, he’s a charmer – and we get to see his character grow and other unexpected qualities emerge. It’s beautiful to watch. Byron is the most seasoned actor in the Sequence company, and we’re all benefiting from his experience and generosity.”
She said this play feels made for Realwheels “because it isn’t about disability, yet disability forms the landscape against which universal issues are debated onstage.”
She explained, “The four characters in Sequence are attached to their individual frameworks of the world: faith versus science, fate versus DNA. Did God use evolution as a means of creation? If something isn’t testable, how do you justify believing it? Is there an innate rightness to biological outcomes rooted in our fundamental DNA?”
Sequence has won several awards. The playwright, Lakra, is an ophthalmologist in Calgary, where he splits his time between practising medicine and writing, said Cohen. “This is the first time,” she said, “the play is being produced with an integrated cast – professional actors with disabilities playing alongside able-bodied actors.”
Sequence runs 80 minutes with no intermission, and is not suitable for children. It is at Presentation House Theatre March 14-24 (except March 19), with proceeds from the March 14 preview going to Realwheels Society to cover production costs. For tickets ($28-$10), call 604-990-3474 or visit phtheatre.org.