Rapt in a rat's brain

Laurel Hoitsma, a company member of Undermain Theatre and actress about town, called a couple weeks ago to make a request unusual to these ears: "Please don't review the new show I'm in."

Had I finally bored a Dallas actor to the breaking point? After being reassured that this disinvitation had nothing to do with the length of my sentences, I was informed that Dionysus and Apollo, the brand-spanking-new theater company that was debuting with Canadian playwright John Mighton's Possible Worlds, would love me to see the show, but they were sensitive about their maiden voyage passing through the military checkpoints of critical attention.

Plus, the Undermain is kindly sharing its space, not to mention Kelly Cotten's cool Orwellian back-porch set, with the currently running Erik Ehn adaptation of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. They were concerned about confusion between Undermain and the fledgling Dionysus & Apollo, formed by husband-and-wife classical theater lovers Fred Alsup and Linda Gardner. D&A spent $600 and two weeks in rehearsal.

I assumed $600 was a princely sum compared to what a lot of the small theater companies in Dallas possess; yet these are folks who manage nonetheless to scrape under the couch cushions and between the car seats to finance compelling, occasionally inspired theater. Since so many of these smaller companies rely on the kindness of their more established theatrical siblings, I would have figured the scene had accepted having its individual efforts mixed into a fine paste by Dallas newspaper readers.

A second, last-minute voice-mail message by Hoitsma revealed that the production had conducted a pow wow, and the consensus was: What the hell, tie our hands behind our backs, blindfold us, and don't forget to light the cigarette before you aim.

And so, Possible Worlds borrows Undermain resources, although it's not an Undermain show. It's the debut performance by a company that's testing the low tide of Dallas theatrical hospitality, but it has confident, expressive actors and a buoyant but thoughtful pace provided by director David Kennedy.

The light, nimble energy this show radiates suggests actors who've not been given enough time to think too hard about their characters. That's intended as a compliment, because Possible Worlds is above all else a comedy, and a frequently funny one. But the serious philosophical conundrums it constructs might easily have led a company with more time and money to mount a truly pretentious show. John Mighton's script is intelligently crafted and even complex, but it's also a big, sticky meringue: The brainy pleasures consume all your attention during the show, but the flavor fades fairly fast from your mind's palate.

Playwright John Mighton has been compared to Tom Stoppard, mostly because Mighton is happy to bend logic and natural laws that govern time and space in order to score a zinger about eternally foolish human nature. Plus, much like Mighton's multi-character, extra-temporal story, Stoppard's Arcadia, recently staged here by Theatre Three, unfolds as an investigation being conducted by two individuals on the causes of a mysterious incident that happened a long time ago.

Time and identity play deceptively important roles in Possible Worlds, whose philosophical engine runs on this conceit: Everything you imagine actually occurs in some parallel universe. This includes not only being a different person, but being the same person in a different situation, or with different colored hair, etc. The "possible worlds" the title refers to mingle in the green rooms of the brain: memory and imagination.

Two of the characters central to the play are neurologists conducting experiments on a rat brain named Louise that's been separated from its body, reactivated, and wired to trigger memories and desires. The comic presence of Louise, who's carried around onstage like a mascot, is the first clue to a plot that intertwines three seemingly separate stories. There's neurology student Jocelyn (Laurel Hoitsma) and risk analyst George (Mark Farr), who meet in a cafe and begin a tentative relationship spurred by George's charmingly straightforward romantic sense. And then there's a second Jocelyn and George (also Hoitsma and Farr), who meet in a singles bar and form a rockier alliance after their one-night stand.

While the predictably tortured fumblings of these parallel romances play out, a series of murders has confounded two police investigators (Robert Erwin and Tristan Q. Decker): Someone has killed 11 people and surgically removed their brains. In every case, all the doors of the murder site were locked from the inside when police got there. It's clear that the killer possesses an ability to transcend barriers both spatial and temporal and an agenda to expand the human experience to the very limits of consciousness.

Possible Worlds may sound like recycled William Gibson, but Dionysus & Apollo thankfully never loses sight of the laughs in Mighton's goof on the trap of hope. A less focused cast would've had problems oscillating between the romantic comedy, the philosophical fantasy, and the dark poignancy in the script, but starting at the top with Hoitsma and Farr, everyone seems perfectly in command of Mighton's restless changes of tone.

I'd only seen Mark Farr in a small role in the Undermain's previous production, The Comedy of Errors. He looked overstarched and not altogether comfortable playing a Shakespearean military leader, but as the hapless Everyneurotic George, he springs with agility and intelligence through every tilt and shift in the play. He carries on his able shoulders a marvelous dream sequence during which George envisions a world of facially deformed humans who've reduced the scope of communication down to three English words: "block," "slab," and "hilarious." He makes the scene delightful.

Laurel Hoitsma, a technically proficient actress who can sometimes seem chilly onstage, draws an impressive line between Jocelyn the sweet-natured neurologist and Jocelyn the emotionally guarded stock trader--and in one scene even throws in a hysterically smarmy third variation, Jocelyn the brunette motivational speaker for "The Consciousness Revolution."

The program for Possible Worlds states that Dionysus & Apollo "plans to present" a pair of one-acts this fall as its follow-up production. Artists don't do theater in Dallas to make money, but I hope the reception for this latest show encourages Fred Alsup, Linda Gardner, and company to follow through with another. The sturdy whimsy of their debut presentation sets your brain buzzing with the possibility of more.

Possible Worlds runs through May 18. Call 821-1480.


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