It’s an agonizing decision: should I choose the girl, the boy, or the DJ?
Upon entering The Genius Code, you’re greeted by a pair of headphones perched on the back of several dozen chairs, each marked by a piece of coloured tape corresponding to one of the show’s three characters. Make sure to get there at least 15 minutes early so you’ll have time to listen to all three of the short monologues that play in a loop before the show begins, as they give clues to the deftly woven, sinister story that’s about to unfold—and because once you don your chosen character’s headphones, you’re limited to that one character’s viewpoint.
Well, that’s not exactly true—you’ll hear all the performers as they actually speak on stage, just as any other play, but occasionally you’ll be fed snippets of private comments from your chosen character. It’s both intriguing and piquing—after all, who doesn’t want the omniscient perspective? And what exactly is being said to the other two-thirds of the audience? Yet therein lies the genius of The Genius Code: just like in real life, you never get the full story, only the fragments that you see, or hear or read for yourself.
Gene Cody, or DJ Genius Code (Cole Humeny), is an experimental musician and perpetual loner, a “brilliant psycho” circling on the outside of all human affairs but especially that of the show’s troubled couple, Sky (Jamie Cavanagh) and Gyl (Laura Metcalfe). At the outset of their relationship, Gene has obtained their permission to record their conversations for use in his music (which we hear throughout as a muffled, vaguely rhythmic beat). As is revealed later, he only employs the happy memories and cuts out the ugly, violent ones—even denying their existence, despite the clear, firsthand proof that these form the bulk of their fraught relationship.
The Genius Code, which is the product of Surreal SoReal’s two-year residency with Catalyst Theatre, becomes disorienting when midway through the audience is ordered to remove their headphones. The internal comments are now voiced out loud and heard by all. This seems almost a shame—while the play functions just as well (albeit very differently) without the headphones, the potential remains for this show to transform again (it has already had two previous incarnations).
Sky and Gyl spiral ever downwards, their movements like those of caged animals. Ainsley Hillyard’s choreography shows how fast a tender embrace can become a chokehold, using physical movement as metaphor for the lightning-quick shifts in tension and emotion that define this relationship. Circling them is the ubiquitous Gene: awkward and unsettling, not a direct threat but certainly not benign, hemming them in with tilted microphones. The deft interplay between this trio is compelling: a dangerous, tense dance.
The Genius Code refuses to place blame on one person; regardless of your choice of headphones, all three characters are implicated in the terrible events that unfold. Playwright Jon Lachlan Stewart has an ear for language, whether it’s heightened, almost poetic asides or gritty dialogue, and this truthfulness prevents the play’s dark, slippery subject matter from alienating its audience.
Unlike the Disney movies that the characters argue about—and which the audience sees in projected snippets—The Genius Code does not offer a happy ending. Nor is it mere catharsis, though it does leave one reeling. Powerful and gripping, The Genius Code turns what might have been an almost maudlin tale into an inventive, disturbing manifestation. While not perfect—much like the characters before us—it’s not an overstatement to say that shows like this do not come through town very often. Take advantage of the opportunity.
Until Sun, June 8 (8 pm; weekend matinees at 2 pm, no evening shows Sunday & Monday)
Directed by Jon Lachlan Stewart
C103, $18 – $22