The concept of The Genius Code intrigued me – putting different audience members into the viewpoint of different characters, by giving them headphones. I am fascinated by the idea of piecing together the truths of different people’s experiences. It’s easy to do and fairly common in written fiction. And I’ve seen movies and tv shows where a scene is shown from one character’s viewpoint, maybe with some voice-over retrospective narration, and then repeated from another character’s viewpoint and voice with a very different impression. It’s also doable on stage, although harder – it might be a fun improv game for experienced players.
But in The Genius Code, the writer and director (Jon Lachlan Stewart) doesn’t control which of the viewpoints an audience member chooses. And in attending one performance, you only get one viewpoint – you can’t switch. This performance-art choice leads to some fascinating differences in audience experience.
When the audience is wearing headphones, the lighting design has the house quite dark, and the logistics of cable management mean that the audience members tend to sit still. I think that mostly people aren’t listening to the same commentary as their neighbours. And the audiences for the two performances I’ve attended have been unusually quiet while we were wearing headphones. Mostly, the characters’ inner thoughts were heard in one set of headphones only, and the conversations taking place on stage were transmitted by floor mics to all three sets of headphones. But even when all of us were hearing the conversation, I thought the audience wasn’t very responsive. I kept wanting to sigh and smile and gasp and chuckle and wince in recognition, but somehow the awareness of being surrounded by a room full of people listening quietly in headphones made me hesitate. Later in the show, there’s a part where we’re instructed to take the headphones off. The house lights came partway up, the story continued unamplified, and the audience immediately became more responsive. This fascinated me, and I wondered if it was disconcerting to the actors when we were quieter.
Technically, I was relieved and impressed that the headphones thing worked. I never heard any sound bleeding over from the other feeds, either in the full house of opening night when I was surrounded by people listening to different feeds or on the preview night when I had empty seats next to me. Soundscapes (Aaron Macri and Jonathan Krawchuk) and video backgrounds projected on an unusual surface (Matt Schuurman) added to the atmosphere and provided more information.
I’ve attended two performances and listened to two points of view. I’m planning to return one night next week to listen to the third one. Listening to the second one made me re-think some opinions I’d formed during the first show, and then wonder whether the assumptions that led me to those opinions were unfair. Things kept surprising me during the second show, things that I know rationally must have happened the same way both times but for some reason I didn’t remember them clearly.
The characters in the story are Sky (Jamie Cavanagh), Gyl (Laura Metcalfe), and Gene aka DJ Genius Code (Cole Humeny). As the story starts, Gene has just brought his two friends together, and as they seem to hit it off, they agree to let Gene record all their conversations. This is a convenient explanation allowing Gene to move about the stage adjusting microphones so that the audience will hear the conversations through our headphones, but it is also important in showing how Gene relates to the other two. It provides some important plot movement, and the option to re-play or re-mix the recordings also gives some interesting framework. The phrase “Let’s start again” is used several times during the performance, usually in a sense of “let’s play this recording again from the top” but in other senses as well. And in fact, sometimes in life and relationships, sometimes one cannot just start again.
My first impressions of Gyl were that she’s a wacky outspoken young woman, talented and attractive. Sky struck me as a glib provocative young man who enjoys playing with words and is also accustomed to being desirable. And Gene was a puzzle. Humeny plays the character with near-flat affect and an immobile face, usually looking down or to one side rather than making eye contact with his friends. Costume/Set Designer Cory Sincennes has dressed him in a hooded shirt a bit too big for him with sleeves too long, making him look small and not in control (a very different impression than when I saw him as an enlisted Marine in A Few Good Men). There were scenes of credible friendship and affection. There were a couple of intensely erotic sequences of dialogue and movement, one of which turns disturbingly into a fight scene (choreography credit Ainsley Hillyard).
I had not seen any of Jon Lachlan Stewart’s work before, but now I will make a point of seeing anything else available. I’d seen all the performers at least once – Metcalfe as the grasping sister-in-law in The Three Sisters, Humeny in Ride, Strike!, and a minor role in Clybourne Park as well as in A Few Good Men, and Cavanagh in several plays and improv shows over the last couple of years, starting with Sexual Perversity in Chicago and most recently Romeo and Juliet.
As I said, I’ve seen two viewpoints and I plan to return for the third. I wondered whether it was fair to post about it before seeing the third side, but I want to encourage more people to see it, It’s playing until Sunday June 8th at C103, the theatre in the Strathcona Market parking lot. And I imagine many theatregoers will see it only once, but will compare notes afterwards with other people about the versions they saw and what they thought.
I liked it. There was one thing that I found unsatisfying, I found myself wanting to put the headphones back on and hear more about how things were unfolding later from my character’s POV. I don’t really know why this bugged me – maybe because it felt asymmetric not finishing the way we started, or maybe because I liked the internal-monologue parts, or what. And I guess the private-to-shared transition is part of how this story needs to get told – medium being the message and all that – but I kept wanting there to be a headphones ending. I hope it was a legitimate artistic choice rather than some decision to put the audiences back into their comfort zones – because when I go to theatre I don’t mind being out of my comfort zone. (SLIGHTLY out of my comfort zone. That does not mean I sit on the aisle at a bouffon show.)