When will scientists learn to leave well enough alone?

Dr. Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan) works on the machine he hopes will allow him to isolate parts of his personality.

By Richard Ades

Do you like an intellectual challenge? Then Minor Premise may be the film for you.

Do you like an intellectual challenge with a reward at the end? Then maybe it’s not the film for you—or maybe it is, depending on how you interpret the puzzling finale.

Eric Schultz, adapting and directing a story originally written by Thomas Torrey and Justin Moretto, has created a real brain teaser that has to do with—well, the brain. It centers on Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan), a neuroscientist who’s trying to build on his late father’s work by creating a machine that allows a person to control his or her consciousness.

Ethan hopes the gizmo will help him isolate his intellect from other parts of his personality in order to aid his research. But, of course, something goes wrong, as he could have predicted if only he’d read Robert Louis Stevenson’s cautionary tale about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Ethan succeeds in isolating his intellect, but he also isolates nine other aspects of his personality, which then take turns controlling his body for intervals of six minutes each.

Complicating an already complicated situation, each version of Ethan has no memory of what the others have done, forcing him to rely on security cameras and other aids to figure out what’s going on. Fortunately for him, former girlfriend and fellow neuroscientist Alli Fisher (Paton Ashbrook) soon drops by and offers to help him sort things out.

Dr. Alli Fisher (Paton Ashbrook) helps Ethan chart the personality traits that take turns controlling him, though they haven’t quite figured out No. 8.

As difficult as it is for Ethan to understand his bizarre predicament, it’s nearly as hard for viewers, as Schultz likes to make sudden jumps in time and sometimes throws in flashbacks depicting the scientist’s difficult relationship with his late father (Nikolas Kontomanolis) and others. But once we grasp that each hour of Ethan’s life is now divided into six-minute segments respectively dominated by traits such as anger, libido and creativity, it’s kind of fun to guess how he’ll react to each—and whether he and Alli will find a way to end the relentless cycle.

In an attempt to add humanity to this overtly cerebral tale, Schultz suggests that at least some elements of Ethan’s psyche don’t want to return to normal, since normal is being a recluse whose suspicion and self-centeredness have alienated him from people who’ve tried to help him. This tack would work better if the flick’s frenzied style didn’t make it so hard to know and care about the scientist.

But a bigger problem is an ending that will leave many viewers wondering just what happened and how they’re supposed to feel about it. After sitting through a film that forces us to work so hard, it’s kind of a bummer.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Minor Premise (no MPAA rating) is available beginning Dec. 4 through theaters, virtual cinemas and VOD outlets.

Recorded memories prove invaluable in dystopian murder mystery

Sharing a rare moment of peace and happiness are (from left) Cloud (Stephen Woosley), Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), Charlotte (Colleen Dunne) and Mordecai (Travis Horseman) in the world premiere of Memory Fragments (photo by Andy Batt)
Sharing a rare moment of peace and happiness are (from left) Cloud (Stephen Woosley), Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), Charlotte (Colleen Dunne) and Mordecai (Travis Horseman) in the world premiere of Memory Fragments (photo by Andy Batt)

By Richard Ades

Following the world premiere of Memory Fragments last week, playwright Sam Wallin described the mystery as an example of “cyberpunk.” He explained that this is a form of science fiction that mixes a futuristic setting with elements of film noir.

Well, it’s definitely science fiction, and it’s definitely set in the future. The film-noir part isn’t quite so obvious. The scene breaks are accompanied by the kind of jazzy noodlings that would have made Sam Spade feel right at home, but the scenes themselves fail to capture the dark moodiness that characterized Spade’s world.

No matter. Memory Fragments may not be noir-ish, but it’s never boorish. As long as you don’t mind being confused for much of the running time, it’s an intriguing murder mystery.

The hero is a police detective named Cloud (Stephen Woosley) who’s assigned to investigate the death of a barista named Mordecai (Travis Horseman). Cloud’s first job is to determine whether the man was murdered or committed suicide.

In this version of the near future, people’s memories are recorded and stored so that they can be played back as needed. Ordinarily, this makes Cloud’s job pretty easy. In Mordecai’s case, however, the fatal wound destroyed all but 17 fragments of the victim’s memory. Along with Jerome (Andy Woodmansee), an annoying stranger who inserts himself into the investigation, Cloud begins watching the fragments in hopes of solving the case.

It’s through the recorded memories that we meet a number of people who played a role in Mordecai’s final days, including a new girlfriend (Colleen Dunne), a male psychiatrist (Andy Batt), a lascivious female psychiatrist (Laura Spires) and a mysterious man in a brown suit (Erik Sternberger). Cloud attempts to sift through the clues with help from his late wife, Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), whom he frequently resurrects in the virtual world where he spends most of his time.

Eventually, the mystery of Mordecai’s death is solved, but not until more people have died—and not until Cloud has followed the evidence to the upper echelons of the two huge corporations that control this future society.

Speaking after Thursday’s preview performance, Wallin and director Batt revealed that MadLab spent two years planning the play’s premiere. Part of the delay was due to the problem of portraying the work’s frequent shifts between the present and the past, and between physical reality and virtual reality.

With help from designers Brenda Michna (scenery and lighting) and Peter Graybeal (sound), Batt’s production succeeds admirably. Especially effective are the gauzy curtains that separate the present from the past, as represented by the recorded memories.

Also admirable is the large cast, which also includes Julie Ferreri and MaryBeth Griffith. The portrayals are rooted in emotional reality, which helps to ground a play that otherwise could disintegrate into a confusing mixture of sci-fi jargon and dystopian paranoia.

To be sure, Memory Fragments still challenges viewers to keep up, but MadLab keeps them so entertained that they’re happy to make the effort.

Memory Fragments will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Nov. 1 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $12, $10 for students/seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.