REVIEW of Drama: Pilot Episode (Alberta Views, 2012)

Drama a deep look at what's on TV

***** (Five stars out of five.)

Alberta Theatre Projects' Enbridge playRites Festival presents Drama: Pilot Episode by Karen Hines through March 3 at the Martha Cohen Theatre. Tickets: 403-294-7402.

"Why are you here?”

The introductory question put to prospective patients by Dr. Penelope Douglas, the psychiatrist in the remarkable new play that premiered on Friday at playRites, sounds simple enough.

Yet the query, both express and implied, elicit responses which, in the context laid before us by Calgary playwright Karen Hines' fascinating and very smart noir satire, Drama: Pilot Episode, prove anything but.

When we first meet her, the shrink (played by Daniela Vlaskalic) has just arrived in a city similar to Calgary for a new start after incurring official sanctions in her previous job as a government forensic psychiatrist in Toronto specializing in "retroactive psychiatric
analysis," mostly of the recently dead.

No sooner settled in her boutique hotel residential suite/office surroundings, Dr. Douglas herself consults a kind of omniscient oracular presence - listed in the playRites playbill only as the Sage - a terse medical man with a renegade disposition, who is portrayed
with finely articulated energy by Allan Morgan.

Penelope seeks his assessment because she senses she suffers from the syndrome that we soon discover afflicts others in Drama, a kind of empty loss of innocence, a kind of soullessness of the small screen. She tells him at one point that if she were to walk into a house of mirrors, "I would not be able to see myself."

(The Sage meanwhile has al-ready narrated this description of her: "Bright mind. Dim spirit.")

In quick succession, we meet doomed television "content provider" (scriptwriter) Noah, portrayed by Christian Goutsis; and Penelope's pregnant closest friend, Columbia (Mabelle Carva-jal), also ex-Toronto and now an oil wife ("My husband's in oil. I'm in Pilates," she tells Penelope).

Others follow thick and furiously fast and funny in this universe stuck in a void between reality and lazy TV. Among them are a sleek realtor who gives Penelope a nutty rundown, embellished with glibness on the spirit of indigenous peoples, on the abattoir history of the building they're in; and the narcissistic actress Lily (Alana Hawley, wonderful in both roles) who, in her desperation for professional affirmation or salvation of some sort - and just about everyone in Drama is desperate for spiritual restoration - goes almost too far in trying to wrest from Penelope the script by Noah that she thinks will solve her life.

And then there's Deedee the Decision Maker (Lindsay Burns), her baby always with her, parrying the crazed pitches made by Noah who, as it turns out, may not be so crazy after all.

Exchanges such as the one where Noah pitches a puppet comedy series about the souls of unborn babies floating around in a kind of netherworld and communicating with each other about who the best moms would be, based on spiritual affinities ("Like Puppets Who Kill? Like the Muppets?" Deedee asks. "Somewhere in between," Noah replies) show Hines's flights of comic fancy at their best. Finally, there's Fyg (Amy Sawka), someone's 15-year-old unborn daughter, who helps bring everything to a head after you start to wonder where all the impossibly rich concatenation of Drama is going.

The shallows these guys all chart go suddenly deep, without warning.

But the signs were there all along: when the troubled Noah tells us stuff like "the dead are as much a part of life as the living," for example, or when the Sage, talking about the need for drama in all our lives at the end of the day, says, "If we don't get it, we'll make it up ourselves."

And with the small bird that drops to the stage in the early part of the play: Its recurrence later in the show brings to mind the Shakespeare line: "There is a special providence in the fall of a spar-row" - in a context here of hope.

We go from chic to cheek, from satire to melodrama, from ant farms to the meaning of babies, from soul of the mind to spirit in the veins, from Nietzsche and David Mamet to Desperate Housewives, as we are moved by playwright Hines through a very clever, cautionary play-with-epilogue about becoming the medium for what we watch on
television and being what we consume.

The cast, directed by Blake Brooker, is terrific; clear and precise, their portrayals strike a balance between the real and the unreal.

Wonderful, too, is the moody Twilight Zone lighting by David Fraser, the boutiquey hipness of fashions by April Viczko, the atmospheric soundscape score by Richard McDowell, and especially the set design by Scott Reid, a very contemporary minimalism dominated by several bison skulls, one of which is attached to the whole skeleton, hanging illuminated above the back of the Martha Cohen thrust-stage.

The striking prop underscores the tension in Drama, between the animate spirit of the land in the past and the inanimate souls of the dead who live in the present, and at the heart of a magnificent play.