Review: Virtual Solitaire, at Studio 1398 on Granville Island (until March 29)

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Virtual Solitaire, staged by Vancouver Fringe, looks at a technological dystopia where virtual reality scrambles a hapless worker’s brain.

When watching this play, I thought often of the sci-fi writer William Gibson. With the disclaimer that I have not finished that book, his latest novel “The Peripheral” is also about the boundaries between “real life” and virtual reality in a dystopian future. The concerns that Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have about artificial intelligence are well-known.

When those in charge of the game make permanent and destructive brain-altering decisions, without the informed consent of their employee, you might be tempted to think of the Nazis and Mengele. But a closer analogy in time and place is Dr. Ewen Cameron, who used LSD, paralytic drugs, electroshock, and long-playing audio devices to “reprogram” his psychiatric patients in Weyburn, Saskatchewan in the 1960s.

In this one-man show, Dawson Nichols moves seamlessly and effectively from character to character, playing a wide range of roles. He’s the confused patient and the overseer, the detective and the asylum dweller, among others. This aspect of the performance was excellent.

Both my friend and I felt that this play would benefit from some editing to tighten up the narrative and pacing. That said, the dramatic tension was generally good throughout. I was frequently confused as to what was happening, although that is probably part of the plot.

I saw David Mamet referenced in a review, and just as watching a Mamet play can frequently be uncomfortable, the same is true here. What is happening to the main character Nathan is not pleasant to consider. But like Mamet’s work, this is theatre that stimulates deeper considerations.

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