Out of Sequence

Dr. Guzman (Nancy Palk) thinks she has found the perfect test subject in wheelchair-bound Adamson (Jesse LaVercombe) in Sequence at the Tarragon.

Sequence, by Arun Lakra, directed by Andrea Donaldson, running at Tarragon Theatre’s Mainspace to Feb. 12.

Watching Sequence is like listening to an ambitious 90-minute prog rock album that ends with a 30-second record scratch. You’re pretty sure you liked parts of it, but your overall opinion is soured by the ending, and when thinking about it afterward you’re not entirely sure what it was trying to say.

The show’s concept is certainly ingenious, and executed well enough. Two stories, both about chance versus free will, one establishing its sides as luck versus mathematics, the other as religion versus science, are presented on the same stage, and often in the same space. The actors in one story freeze every time the actors in the other story are speaking. The overall effect highlights each story’s parallel with the other — at least, until the ending.

Here is where I confess I have no idea what, exactly, playwright Arun Lakra, a Calgary-based opthamologist whose script won an Alberta playwrighting contest in 2011, is trying to say.

I had a working theory, somewhat derailed by the ending, but I can imagine him laughing at it, and more importantly I don’t think he wants the audience to know what, if anything, his thesis might be. My impression is that Lakra wants neither chance nor free will to win, but to present each case equally and let the audience choose — though if that’s the case, I think he could have framed his arguments a bit more eloquently.

Lakra’s vehicle for chance in the first story is Theo (Kevin Bundy), proclaimed by Time Magazine as the “luckiest man alive” after making his fortune through 19 consecutive double-or-nothing bets on the Super Bowl’s coin toss. In between, Theo serves as a self-help guru who makes millions teaching others how to emulate him – and on the day we’re seeing the play unfold, is confronted by Cynthia (Ava Jane Markus), a woman convinced that Theo’s improbable luck is based on a mathematical equation known as the Fibonacci sequence, which she thinks might also explain her genetic disease, and her daughter’s risk of being born with one of her own.

Cynthia’s counterpart in the second tale is Dr. Guzman (Soulpepper’s Nancy Palk), a university professor who believes she’s on the verge of discovering the genetic sequence for luck, and has found the perfect candidate to test her hypothesis on. Adamson (Jesse LaVercombe) is a wheelchair-bound student born with cerebral palsy, left paraplegic by a car accident and, most improbably in Dr. Guzman’s eyes, achieved the lowest possible score on a recent exam. Adamson, however, turns out to be a devout Christian who believes his fate is in God’s hands and refuses his professor’s help.

I’ll say this for Tarragon: It’s the rare show where I can find any fault with the acting, set design, or direction. Director Andrea Donaldson and her cast are all in fine form here, delivering dialogue that uses the characters as mouthpieces for Lakra’s musing on luck, faith, mathematics, and science in a way that sounds like it was a nightmare to stage and memorize but almost comes off as natural.

The set design, too, is excellent, ably suggesting both a professor’s office and the stage for Theo’s presentation, which is littered with objects that test his luck (a mirror, a ladder), without coming off as cluttered or distracting. I will admit, however, that I find Palk and LaVercombe’s casting problematic on a fundamental level, as Palk does not, in any way, shape or form, register as blind and, despite his best efforts, LaVercombe cannot hide the fact that he’s able-bodied.

But the point of this show isn’t the characters, it’s Lakra’s thoughts on — again — luck, faith, mathematics, and science. Ultimately I find myself wishing he had more to say, and a more credible way of saying it.

Then there’s the ending.

Towards the play’s conclusion, enough improbable coincidences stack up that it appears the two stories could be related to each other, making for a powerful statement about the similarities between science and faith. But it’s undone by two of the characters drawing guns. Until the last 30 seconds, in fact, my impression had been that Dr. Guzman could be Cynthia or Theo could be Adamson, and we weren’t going to definitively know whether either was the case.

However, once the guns are fired it’s likely that one character is going to jail and another is dead, invalidating my hypothesis without leaving an equally clear one in its place.