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Seana McKenna as Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd and Mike Nadajewski as Ernst Heinrich Ernesti (alias Einstein).

David Hou

3 out of 4 stars

Title
The Physicists
Written by
Friedrich Durrenmatt
Directed by
Miles Potter
Actors
Geraint Wyn Davies, Seana McKenna
Venue
Stratford Festival
City
Stratford, Ont.
Runs Until
Sunday, September 27, 2015

'Exactly what year do you think it is?"

This is what a mental-health nurse asks a homicide detective in the opening moments of Michael Healey's new adaptation of Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt's satire The Physicists. It's not an unreasonable question: Inspector Voss (Randy Hughson) is attempting to light a cigarette in an insane asylum where a nurse has just been strangled to death, by an inmate no less.

But by having the nurse ask the question, Healey is really drawing the audience's attention to the fact that they're about to watch a 1962 play that he's refreshed for 2015, with all the compromises and contradictions that entails. If you accept that this is an imperfect process, The Physicists is a pleasing puzzle of a play.

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Durrenmatt's satire takes place in an institution called Les Cerisiers (yes, The Cherry Orchard), in a ward inhabited by three men. One of them thinks he is Isaac Newton (Graham Abbey); another thinks he's Albert Einstein (Mike Nadajewski); and a third, who everyone seems to be fairly certain is Johann Mobius (Geraint Wyn Davies), is a scientist who has been locked up since he began to believe that King Solomon was speaking to him and through him.

While The Physicists begins with a murder, there is no mystery per se: Einstein is identified as the one who killed the nurse sprawled on the floor as the lights go up – just as Newton had strangled another nurse on the same spot a few weeks before. But since they're already locked up, the police turn their attention to the woman who runs the asylum – one Fraulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd, played most entertainingly by Seana McKenna in full mad-scientist mode, sporting a hump on her back for the first time since she played Richard III on this same stage in 2011.

It's tricky to say much more about The Physicists' plot without ruining its surprises. Indeed, much of the first act is misdirection – though Miles Potter's production would be more fun if he didn't misdirect quite so much of it.

It's not easy to stomach the serial murder of nurses as little more than a running gag – but it might be easier if they weren't sexualized in Gillian Gallow's costumes. And at the matinee I saw, the comic timing was a little less than Swiss at first – with some over-the-top emoting that was simply irritating. (I couldn't wait for Mobius's weepy ex-wife, played by Jane Spidell, to exit, though I wished her dim-witted, heavy-lidded missionary husband, played by Sean Arbuckle, had stuck around.)

Bear with the few stretches that are more head-scratching than rib-tickling and Durrenmatt's play and Potter's production come into focus as Wyn Davies's pathos-filled performance as Mobius takes charge. By the second act, everyone's up to his level, with Abbey's nasty Newton and Nadjewski's limber Einstein spinning around Wyn Davies's nutty nucleus.

Without giving too much away: Mobius is revealed to have checked himself into an asylum because he believes his physics discoveries are too dangerous – and rulers from around the world of all political stripes want a strip off of him.

"Only in the asylum are we free," Mobius says. "Once something has been thought, it cannot be unthought."

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We're in Dr. Strangelove territory here in a play written in the shadow of the Bomb. Healey's adaptation (based on a translation by Birgit Schreyer Duarte) takes some stabs at making Durrenmatt's mutually assured destruction-era madhouse relevant to our own – adding nods to NSA surveillance and a very amusing joke about nanotechnology that seems to imply that Margaret Atwood's remote signing device, the LongPen, might have a future as a spy weapon.

In the end, however, the idea that science is too dangerous for humanity feels more than a little satirically out of date. If only our governments, corporations and people hungered for cutting-edge scientific research now they way the did when Communism and capitalism were at each other's throats. You get the feeling that Stephen Harper's Conservatives, in particular, would be on board with the idea that scientists, such as Mobius, should lock themselves up, and that ignorance is bliss.

The Physicists remains thoughtful theatre, certainly – but Durrenmatt's Cold War argument does not transfer easily to the era of global warming.

(stratfordfestival.com).

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