2014 Edmonton Fringe Review: Case Study

I saw this one coming.

About five minutes into Case Study, an Edmonton Fringe play about two scientists working together on a research project, I recognized what the ending was going to be. Many of you wouldn't, though (I used to be able to do this with Baywatch too, and it was the most popular show on the planet), and so let's review and recap.

Two scientists are put together (voluntarily? Josh Languedoc's script doesn't make it perfectly clear) in a room and forced/told to perform groundbreaking research into...dum dum dum...the origins of violence. One (literally one, that's his name in the press junket) is a field researcher who is apparently well regarded, quite successful, influential, and has a bit of a dark history of having experiments get away from him. Two is a university professor in the social sciences, specializing more in focus groups (??) that, unlike One, actually involve studying humans. As the play begins, shadowy government figures who do not reveal their faces or identities give them their assignment: on a tight deadline the two men are to study various violent criminals with known psychological issues in an effort to determine if violence in the brain is nature or nurture.

The conflict builds slowly, in one sense, and at inconsistent speeds in the other: each scene is to show the two men drifting apart in their styles as the play moves along, with a dollop of personal conflict as well. The personal conflict builds as good as it can with the limited time and number of scenes: Two's flair for the dramatic gets on One's nerves almost immediately, and as he sings songs and impersonates movie stars One looks on in a bit of dread, as if to wonder how long he's going to be stuck with this guy. The professional divergence, on the other hand, doesn't flow nearly as organically, apparently coming in out of the blue at several junctions in the play. It isn't that their styles don't merge well (though they certainly don't, even in the world outside the play these two researchers wouldn't come up with any successful results), but that when key decisions need to be made regarding the project when disaster strikes they both have different ideas on how to proceed. Unfortunately, these decisions seem to be made up on the fly, and aren't consistent with earlier decisions from the same character.

The big tipping point comes when a research subject violently kills himself by accident (he was being triggered with loud noises which the psych report says sets him off, and threw a chair hard enough it presumably bounced back and hit him. the details are left fuzzy). You'd think in a situation where you have two university educated men to deal with this problem, the answer and resolution are pretty quick: let the project leads know what happened. Instead, the two conspire after a brief argument to cover it up, clean up the mess, and hide the body. This is often the answer criminals come up with, mostly because they aren't the brightest knives in the drawer to begin with, but more importantly they did something bad they want to get away with. These two didn't, though a University Ethics Committee would rake them over the coals for the trigger bit. This was a man who died by his own hands before they could stop him (there was a plot thread with the power mysteriously draining every time the script called for the scientists to be distracted and not pay attention to the room, which was never resolved), a death row inmate who presumably was escorted to the facility by a police officer or thirty, and who those same officers almost certainly would be expecting to take back. The death row inmate bit was mostly to justify the moral choice to keep quiet, though it ends up being the biggest plot hole around; the later death of a 17 year old girl with drug possession charges would have been easier to cover up, she probably just walked to their door for her session.

As the play goes on, the two men find themselves (figuratively) at each other's throats, tattling to the project team behind their back, bringing up ethical arguments along the lines of Zimbardo or the Milgram experiment (though at one point one of the actors accidentally mispronounced the name wrong and made it sound like a very different experiment) and how they were groundbreaking if not highly highly ethical. There is space in a drama like this, I imagine, for pointing out that modern ethics codes swing too much the other way. While the Stanford Prison example really got out of hand and messed up a lot of people, nobody was actually harmed in the Milgram experiment, and it did resolutely confirm the author's hypothesis. The goal of creating this beautifully groundbreaking research project imbues the characters with a goal, an end point to be pursuing: that it involves them being rather silly and unscientific in their process is I assume just a fact that this isn't a Hollywood movie, there isn't time/money for a few people actually involved in scientific research and writing proposals to script doctor it up. Still, the story doesn't do a very good job of holding it all together, and I tried very very very very very very hard not to giggle when the scientists determined that if they had three totally different human brains plus a single monkey brain (don't ask), they could "triangulate" the results and prove everything.

The actors did fairly well for their performances, Connor Suart (One) especially. Andrew Dool's Two was a little inconsistent, he played up the nerdy professor stereotype a fair bit for a guy who started off talking about Robert DeNiro. I'm also note sure about Dool's robotic sounding voice when he was playing the role of the secretive Project Team, I'm not sure if that's the only way he knows how to read flat lines, or if it was intentionally trying to make some subtle (and therefore lost) hint about who the Project Team really was...another plot thread left open by the end. Dool was also the actor most likely to mess up his lines.

Finally, there was a cool bit with reality show-styled "confessional booth cameras". Just the poor old iphones they were using didn't have enough battery to stay alive the whole show. Whoops.

Final word: If you don't mind seeing things that aren't science called science, you may get a minor kick out of this frantic word. Just leave your non-monkey brain at the door.

(for more reviews of the 2014 Edmonton Fringe, click here)