Category E is a sci-fi experiment that doesnt all work

CATEGORY E by Belinda Cornish (Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth). Runs to April 29. $25-$42.50. See listing. Rating: NNNHow.

CATEGORY E by Belinda Cornish (Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth). Runs to April 29. $25-$42.50. See listing. Rating: NNN

How would we feel if testing for the harmfulness of cosmetics were done on human beings rather than animals?

Thats the premise of Category E by Belinda Cornish, which premiered in Edmonton in 2015. The play focuses on character interaction and atmosphere rather than plot. Though its impressively acted and directed, the mood and characters are not enough to sustain our interest for 90 minutes.

In a wood and wire cage like those used for barnyard animals, we meet two inhabitants Filigree (Diana Bentley), a psychotic young woman, and Corcoran (Robert Persichini), an older one-eyed man in a wheelchair. Into their dingy world comes a new inmate, Millet (Vivien Endicott-Douglas), a cheery young woman whose friendliness pleases Corcoran as much as it enrages Filigree.

All three meekly obey signals to exit for testing or to get food.

The situation poses too many questions that Cornish ignores. Who runs the facility? Periodic audio advertisements for beauty products and cologne suggest its a cosmetics company, but we cant be certain. How are testing subjects chosen? Filigree and Corcoran, respectively, have mental and physical deficiencies, but this doesnt explain Millet, who appears both healthy and happy. And how can Millet be so chirpy about being put in a facility like this? Does she not know what it is? Why does she so instantly obey its rules like the others?

All three actors give superlative performances. Endicott-Douglas sympathetically charts Millets wide dramatic arc from naive openness to increasing ill health. Bentley believably depicts the slow change in Filigree from feral aggression to almost sisterly care for Millet. And Persichinis world-weary Corcoran has a wonderful sequence when he tells the other two the fairy tale-like story of how he once wanted to be a ballet dancer.

Category E turns out to be a not especially engaging entry into the sci-fi sub-genre of scientific testing on humans depicted since at least Brave New World (1932) onward.

Despite the best efforts of the cast under the taut direction of Rae Ellen Bodie, our interest wanes early on when we realize all the play will give us is an insufficiently examined glimpse of three characters progressive degeneration.

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