By D. A. Blackburn
Something strange is afoot at Meadow Brook Theatre, and it’s apt to keep patrons guessing until the final curtain falls on March 7. Anthony Horowitz’s thought-provoking “Mindgame” made its Michigan premiere Saturday night, and if one thing is certain, it’s that the work is appropriately titled — toying with viewers and characters alike, and pressing them to tackle some very existential issues.
Author Mark Styler (Loren Bass) has come to Fairfield Asylum for the Criminally Insane in search of a new story to tell. A mass murderer and patient at the rural English institution may hold the key to his next best seller — and his own troubled past — but to get to the story, he must first get through the rather uncooperative Dr. Alex Farquhar (Mark Rademacher) and his uneasy assistant, Nurse Plimpton (Inga R. Wilson).
Like any good theatrical mystery/thriller, “Mindgame” is packed with twists, turns and unexpected shifts in direction. It’s also a story woven with intricate clues laced throughout its finer fibers. But what sets the work apart from the pack is the way it forces all involved — on stage and in the house — to question the very nature of sanity. That is, does he who is labeled “insane” know that he’s abnormal? And, what, precisely, determines “sanity?”
Throughout the first act, “Mindgame” progresses in a rather conventional, somewhat predictable fashion, despite some abrupt plot turns. But in the second act, Horowitz’s script really comes into its own, turning up the dial on its more psychological elements and losing its moment-to-moment predictability.
The show’s two male leads deliver performances wholly appropriate to the genre, with polished accents and vividly dramatic affectations. That said, on opening night Rademacher occasionally stumbled through his dialogue — a critique remarkably reminiscent of his turn in a strikingly similar role, in a strikingly similar play: Andrew Wyke in The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company’s November 2008 production of Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth.” Comparing productions, however, MBT’s “Mindgame” is a far superior theatrical experience, relying entirely on clever writing to establish its plot twists, rather than deceiving the audience via the playbill as “Sleuth” did.
Much of “Mindgame’s” success as a thriller hinges on its lone female role, Nurse Plimpton, and Wilson brings the role to life with a stirring performance full of complex emotions. Though her stage time is much less than that of her male contemporaries, Wilson’s work is quite possibly the most satisfying acting in MBT’s production.
Interestingly, MBT’s production is not content to merely toy with its audience via its performers and its script. Monika Essen’s clever set has an unusual perspective (speaking in artistic terms). Like the old art school analogy of railroad tracks narrowing towards the horizon, Essen’s design, too, narrows to the back of the stage, creating a unique sense of dimension at the Asylum — some features following the line of the set, and others leveled. Moreover, movable components and a changing rear drop add to the psychological confusion of the script.
Other design highlights include a polished, well-executed sound design by Mike Duncan, which adds to the unease that makes “Mindgame” so affecting, and also subtle but dynamic lighting work by Reid G. Johnson.
“Mindgame” is easily one of the most creative and cleverly written thrillers in recent memory, and there’s little doubt that it will mess with your mind.
: Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Rd., Rochester. Wednesday-Sunday through March 7. $30-$39. 248-377-3300. http://www.mbtheatre.com