By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
At the beating heart of Meg Braem’s intricate Blood: A Scientific Romance are twin sisters whose mysterious bond is an elixir of life. Beyond empathy, beyond heredity, beyond biology, Angelique and Poubelle seem to be joined at not only the cellular, but the soul-ular level.
And in the Maggie Tree production, directed by Brenley Charkow, it’s startling to see that strange and alluring premise come fully to life in star performances by Jayce Mckenzie and Gianna Vacirca.
Those mesmerizing sister performances, intertwined physically and intellectually, are the most persuasive and compelling feature of a production that doesn’t just slide off the rails later, but goes wildly off them and self-destructs in spectacular B-movie black comedy fashion.
But amazingly, even when that happens, you buy into its dark story of obsession and torment — thanks to performances by McKenzie and Vacirca. You understand, at least in theory, why an ambitious doctor (Liana Shannon), a scientist with secrets of her own, might be fascinated, and maddened, by the the twins’ healing link that eludes her scientific research. And why, as they age, she ups the ante gruesomely on her experiments.
A terrible car crash on a prairie highway in 1952 leaves two little Quebec girls (their intertwining of two languages is significant in the story) orphaned at seven, and near death from their injuries. Against all odds and rational explanation, Angelique and Poubelle recover and come to flourish when they are placed next to each other.
Dr. Glass takes them home, an isolated prairie farm house of the gothic persuasion in the middle of nowhere to study further. In the strict regimen of data accumulation in the course of a decade of being investigated they come to realize they are her prisoners and her “lab rats.”
In the most brutal experiment, one twin is submerged in a bathtub of ice water to the point of hypothermia while the other’s vital signs are recorded for comparison. There’s always synchronicity, in a way science can’t explain. What is this bond that can change body temperature and bring the near-dead back to life? Dr. Glass is furious to know, and to present her results to the world.
There’s a fourth character in the play, a newly graduated doctor (Jenna Dykes Busby) who arrives at the farmhouse in the middle of the night to be Dr. Glass’s assistant. An oddly mousey and solitary creature, maladjusted in the world, she’s studying plant biology as a way to understand human connectivity. Will she rescue the twins from their imprisonment? Or is she just too weird?
Anyhow, in a mystery/thriller (with a cinematically sinister sound design by Leif Ingebrigtsen) you have to wonder why the play abandons the unnerving believable in favour of over-the top gothic bizarre so decisively in its later scenes. And you wonder, too, why in a play about creeping discovery — the twins’ and ours — the production opts from the start for a full-blooded transparently mad scientist performance by Shannon’s Dr. Glass.
Yes, the stakes are high. But it’s a little hard on queasy ambiguity, much less suspense and the dawning realization of horror, if the villain is from the outset so flamboyantly psycho, a sadist à la Dr. Mengele. And it certainly leaves the weird assistant role stranded, despite the best efforts of Dykes-Busby to make her plausible.
But you return to the twins, and a mysterious relationship of individuals who are, and aren’t, separate. Who live in and out of half-lit blue world of flashbacks and shared memory. Megan Koshka’s sinister shadowy lighting captures the play’s intricate portrait of doubleness in an eloquent way on a bi-level set .
Are twins duplications, or halves, or each other? Vacirca as Poubelle the starchier more naturally rebellious one, and McKenzie as the more fragile Angelique are uncanny together in Charkow’s production. Their impulsive energy, their alert and instinctive awareness of each other moment to moment has a detailed physicality to it.
At rest their limbs are entwined, a human knot tied against all threats. Their storytelling game is double too. It’s in rhyming couplets, alternating lines at top speed in two languages. And it suggests that the twins share an intelligence as well as a memory bank that dates back to the womb. They are each other’s repository of traditions. You won’t be able to take your eyes off them.
That’s the real draw of Blood: A Scientific Romance, a welcome introduction of Braem’s work to Edmonton audiences. Can the bond of love be dissected? Can poetry triumph over science? Although it stacks the deck in this production, here’s a piece of theatre that wonders about that. And you will too.
Fringe Spotlight Program
Blood: A Scientific Romance
Theatre: The Maggie Tree
Written by: Meg Braem
Directed by: Brenley Charkow
Starring: Jayce McKenzie, Gianna Vacirca, Liana Shannon, Jenna Dykes-Busby
Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through Oct. 27