- Brain Storm
- Written and directed by Taliesin McEnaney
- Co-created by and starring Hayley Carr, Maïza Dubhé, Alexandra Montagnese, Shayna Virginillo
- Company Lucid Ludic in association with Why Not Theatre
- Venue Dancemakers Studio Theatre
- City Toronto
- Runs to March 8
What is it really like to have an acquired brain injury?
Brain Storm, a new play written and directed by Taliesin McEnaney, uses physical theatre and projections to plunge its audience into the world as perceived by a writer named Kate (Shayna Virginillo), whose brain no longer functions the way it used to following surgery.
Doctors hold up fingers that flicker and are impossible to count, letters dance on a screen in a jumble, and spoken dialogue becomes gibberish without a moment’s notice.
Kate’s left field of vision has vanished, and so, when she doesn’t look to her left, the people and things that she would not be able to see disappear behind the four rolling white screens that make up most of designer Will Bezek’s set. (The projections are by Melissa Joakim.)
Brain Storm’s protagonist must learn “strategies” to navigate with her new brain, as she attempts to rehabilitate it – but even the act of trying to order a peppermint tea at a café is difficult as her well-meaning friend Emma (Alexandra Montagnese) chatters on and a truck backs up outside.
Sensory overload is summoned through the staccato or swishing movements of the actors, sudden changes in dialogue dynamics and Olivia Shortt’s short-circuiting sound design.
In its attempt to transfer a character’s atypical perceptions onto an audience, Brain Storm was reminiscent of French writer Florian Zeller’s much-produced The Father, a play about dementia that lets spectators experience events through the eyes of a man suffering from it.
McEnaney’s show is a looser affair, however, a devised work created with the cast that also includes found dialogue and relies on the dance and clowning of its carefully calibrated four-person ensemble to make its points.
Brain Storm not only draws on McEnaney’s personal experience dealing with a major brain injury of a family member but also from the writings of her late grandmother, Claire Ward, who called herself a “script mentalist medium.”
Ward would hold a pencil and channel messages from “spirit guides,” one of whom was Wilder Penfield – the pioneering neurosurgeon and Heritage Minute star (“Dr. Penfield, I smell burnt toast!”).
Kate’s unnamed grandmother (Hayley Carr, entrancing in trances) is a fictionalized version of Ward – and we watch her spout out words from Penfield, who, from beyond the grave, has much to say about the mind and energy.
We also get to see Penfield himself at work in an operating theatre, stimulating the brain of a patient named Judith with electrical probes while she is conscious – leading to strange physical sensations as well as out-of-body experiences and vivid hallucinations based on memories that bring the dead back to life.
Mind-body dualism becomes a part of McEnaney’s staging here: Montagnese voices Penfield from a microphone stand on the side of the stage, while Maïza Dubhé performs his body doing the surgery.
What’s happening here? These seem to be scenes from a play that Kate wrote about her grandmother before her surgery, metatheatrical moments that allow McEnaney to explore metaphysical ideas about the mind. Is it so unscientific to believe in a soul, or spirit, when the brain can be manipulated almost like a computer? Who or what is operating it normally – and where does this who or what go when we die?
Brain Storm doesn’t try to answer these questions. It’s a visual and physical exploration of themes – and sometimes has a meandering feel, without a strong story or characters with depth. (The context of Kate’s life is only sketched in.) If the overall trajectory is not satisfying in a traditional way, however, this is, in part, purposeful. As its creator writes, “Those living with brain injury know that the linear narrative of a triumphant journey of recovery is often not available.”
It’s certainly original to see a piece dealing with difficult subject matter that is, primarily, a comedy. The often dehumanizing experience of health care is amusingly represented here by three surgeons/stooges wandering around in Victorian dress; it’s like The Knick meets slapstick. And Montagnese is particularly funny as the friend of Kate’s who tries to be sympathetic but is constantly undermined by her own foot-in-mouth disease.
The final moments of Brain Storm surprise; they are gently moving and generous.
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