Lust, corruption & the pursuit of justice in Shakespeare BASH’d sharply funny, timely Measure for Measure

Sochi Fried & Geoffrey Armour. Scenic design by Caitlin Doherty. Photo by Kyle Purcell.

 

Shakespeare BASH’d returns to a Toronto pub to present one of the less produced plays of the canon: Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, directed by Catherine Rainville and opening last night at Junction City Music Hall. Given the current #MeToo climate, with powerful and famous—in some cases, respected and even beloved—men called out and taken to court for sexual harassment and assault, and female accusers disbelieved and finding themselves faced with challenging choices, it couldn’t be more timely.

Duke Vincentio (David Ross) is well aware that local laws regarding moral and sexual conduct have gone by the wayside, with officials turning a blind eye to cases of fornication, adultery and sex work. When he decides to get some distance and perspective on his kingdom and people—in what today, we’d call an undercover boss move—he leaves his deputy Angelo (Geoffrey Armour) in charge, with trusted advisor Escalus (Olivia Croft) acting as his second; the Duke tells no one that he’s actually staying in the city, disguised as a Friar as he conducts his observations.

No sooner has Angelo been granted power than he starts rounding up whores, bawds (Lesley Robertson as Pompey) and fornicators, including young Claudio (Jeff Yung), who with the exception of an official ceremony is essentially married to his pregnant love Juliet (Megan Miles). Juliet’s condition protects her from execution, but Claudio is to be put to death for his crime. Claudio’s friend Lucio (Michael Man) informs Claudio’s sister Isabella (Sochi Fried) of her brother’s fate, urging her to plead with Angelo for mercy. When she does so, Angelo’s response is to extort her chastity in exchange for her brother’s life.

Faced with the terrible choice of seeing her brother put to death or surrendering her virtue, Isabella encounters the disguised Duke, who has some interesting information about Angelo, and hatches a plan with her, the maid Mariana (Melanie Leon) and the Provost (Drew O’Hara) to make things right.

With its signature accessible performance and resonant connection with the audience, Shakespeare BASH’d plays up the comedy in this production, however dark at times, to add a spoonful of sugar to this otherwise serious cautionary tale. Angelo’s heavy-handed adherence to the letter of the law, coupled with his vain and entitled sense of virtue and status, make for an ugly and merciless rule—and, like many men in his situation, he believes his power and position make him immune to scrutiny. Who would believe the accusations of a young female nobody? This is how men like him have gotten away with it. The ending is a question mark, making us wonder even about the ‘good guys.’

The ensemble is a finely tuned storytelling delight. Stand-out performances include Armour’s conflicted but entitled Angelo; a dark and corrupt man who struggles with his own lustful desires, he ultimately believes he’s above the law he’s so cruelly enforcing. As Isabella, Fried brings a sense of quiet contemplation, thoughtful oration and fierce vulnerability; Isabella’s genuine goodness and attempt at true justice stand in sharp contrast to Angelo’s hypocritical mask of virtue. Ross gives the Duke a balanced sense of fairness and firmness; progressive where Angelo is regressive, the Duke realizes that the law is a living thing that must reflect the society it rules. Hilarious, sharp-witted comic turns from Man, as the incorrigible scallywag Lucio; and Robertson, as the delightfully coarse Pompey. And shouts to producers/co-founders Julia Nish-Lapidus and James Wallis for stepping in with outstanding comic timing and panache—and off book!—for actor Cara Pantalone (as Mistress Overdone, Froth and Abhorson), who was off sick with no voice last night. The show must, and does, go on.

Lust, corruption and the pursuit of justice in the face of merciless hypocrisy in Shakespeare BASH’d sharply funny, timely Measure for Measure.

Measure for Measure continues at Junction City Music Hall till May 6; advance tickets available online ($20) or at the door ($25 cash only). The first half of this short run is sold out, and there’s limited availability for Friday-Sunday. Tickets are going fast, so book in advance or arrive extra early to get on the wait list.

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The irrepressible Marie Dressler’s life, love & career in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, entertaining Queen Marie

Naomi Peltz, Katherine Cappallacci, Siena Dolinski & Seira Saeki. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company closes its 100th anniversary season—with heart, moxie and rip roaring good fun— with Queen Marie, a musical by Shirley Barrie, directed by Rosemary Doyle, with music direction by Paul Comeau and choreography by Adam Martino.

Queen Marie is a biographical musical about Canadian-born 1930s Hollywood star actress/comedienne Marie Dressler. Director Doyle takes us to the vaudeville stage, complete with proscenium arch, a live band on one side and stall seating on the other. Using minimal set pieces, projected images up centre present show posters and images of various locations as we travel through Dressler’s storied life and career.

queen marie little marie
Catherine Ratusny & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Born Leila Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario, we witness Dressler being bitten by the acting bug at the age of five (Tess Keery), performing in tableaux realized by her mother (Catherine Ratusny, who also plays Dressler in her 40s). At 14, she lies about her age (Gabriella Kosmidis), saying she’s 18, and gets a job with the Nevada Travelling Stock Company and changes her name to Marie Dressler; launching her career and landing in the U.S.

From tableaux, to theatre, to vaudeville to the silver screen, Dressler’s career is a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs as she weathers the highs and lows of the business, embracing her ‘big girl’ brand with self-deprecation and good humour—and giving her all, and then some, to any part put upon her.

Shifting from theatre to movies, Dressler gets a break, working with fellow Canadian Mack Sennet (Adam Bonney); she goes on to work at MGM with Irving Thalberg (Conor Ling) and Louis B. Mayer (Rick Jones). Performing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery, Dressler packs movie houses with her comedic antics, and poignant, gutsy dramatic performances—receiving a Best Actress Oscar at the age of 60 (Leslie Rennie) for her performance in Min and Bill in 1930, and a nomination for Emma in 1932. A top box office draw in America at the time, she becomes the first female actor to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.

Embracing romance along the way, she meets and beings an affair with the charming Jim Dalton (Rick Jones), a married man with a wife in Boston who is smitten with Dressler, and woos her with gentlemanly manners and oysters. While happy to live the unorthodox life of an actor, Dressler longs for the stability and respectability of marriage, and she gets her wish; they later divorce after a series of unpleasant revelations regarding her shrinking bank account. Well into middle age, Dressler becomes smitten with Claire (Nina Tischhauser), a young nurse turned actress who she meets at an Oscar party. The two move in together and set up a cozy domestic and professional partnership, with Dressler acting as Claire’s acting mentor; but the relationship takes Claire away from her own dreams and aspirations—and Claire is faced with a hard decision.

Betrayed and cheated throughout her life—both personally and professionally—it is noteworthy that Dressler finds her primary source of support with her close network of women: her friend, astrologer Nella Webb (Siena Dolinski and Nance Gibson, playing Nella at different ages); her no-nonsense, fastidious maid/assistant Mamie Steele (Fallon Bowman and Indira Layne, playing Mamie at different ages); feisty cub reporter/fan turned screenwriter/Hollywood casting advocate Frances (Katherine Cappellacci); and her companion in later life, the tender, loyal caregiver Claire (Nina Tischhauser, who also plays Dressler in her 20s).

queen marie boy
Jessica Bowmer, James Phelan & Tess Keery. Photo by Bruce Peters.

It’s an ambitious production, imaginatively staged with a cast of 25 enthusiastic multitasking actors that includes 21 women, 10 of whom play Marie at various ages and stages of her hard-working, determined, never dull life. Paula Wilkie plays Dressler in the final scenes; despite a serious cancer diagnosis, Dressler eschews her new role as bed-ridden patient, opting to work on three MGM films in six months before dying at the age of 65. Shouts to all the Marie Dresslers (not previously mentioned: Michele Dodick, Katrina Koenig, Stella Kulagowski & Naomi Peltz) for their energy and panache! Other stand-outs include Ling’s snobbish Brit actor Dan Daley and hilarious turn as a petulant Hollywood film director; Jessica Bowmer’s adorably precocious Boy, who hawks newspapers, peanuts and oysters, and gets into scrapes with his competition; Tischhauser as Dressler’s supportive but conflicted lover Claire; and Rick Jones does a mean tap dance bit.

She’s the Queen! The life, love and rollercoaster career of the irrepressible star Marie Dressler in the delightful, entertaining Queen Marie.

Queen Marie continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until April 28. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 (cash only at the box office). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with PWYC matinees on Sunday at 2:00 pm.

The run includes a final Post-Show Talkback on Sunday April 22. Check out the fun trailer:

 

shirley barrie

 

Just before I sat down to write this review, I read in an Alumnae Theatre Twitter post that playwright Shirley Barrie had passed away; I’ve since learned that she’d been living with cancer and died on Sunday. I’m not sure if she was able to see this current production of Queen Marie, but Doyle, cast and crew did her proud. Thoughts go out to Shirley’s loved ones.

Interview: Director Amanda Smith

Amanda Smith. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra will present the fourth installment of its Haus Musik series on April 26 at the Great Hall, directed by Amanda Smith. Topping Ludwig van Toronto’s 2017 list of breakthrough women in the local classical music scene, Smith is known for her multidisciplinary collaborations with actors, singers, DJs, instrumentalists, visual artists and filmmakers—creating dramatic and remarkable classical music performances that translate the music into the physical world. Smith recently directed Belladonna – a queer techno opera, produced by her company Fawn Chamber Creative.

This upcoming performance of Haus Musik takes us to a post-apocalyptic world, with Tafelmusik performing live in a bunker, where survivor Alex (Ally Smither) has taken shelter. Alex’s only connection to the outside world—and her only source of hope—is the radio and music.

I interviewed Smith, asking her about this upcoming iteration of Haus Musik, as well as her drive to create multidisciplinary classical music experiences.

With this fourth installment of Tafelmusik’s Haus Musik series, you’re exploring political extremes and isolation—timely themes in these turbulent times. In a world on the brink of apocalypse, radio becomes a life line and music a source of comfort. What can you tell us about the genesis of this project?

Truth be told, I thought of it while lying on my bed and listening to CBC Radio. They were talking about tensions between the United States and North Korea, so my thoughts naturally jumped to the worst case scenario. Mostly, I was wondering how it would be possible to maintain mental resiliency in addition to physical safety—they go hand-in-hand, but we so often forget about our psychological needs. I remembered that UK radio stations have a thing called the ‘obit procedure’, which calls for specifically chosen music to be played in the event of a national disaster. This got me thinking about the role of the radio as a primary source of public information during a disaster, and thought about how interesting it is that music is a decided method of keeping the public united and calm. I thought that the music selected for the upcoming Haus Musik had the kind of uplifting, hopeful sound that would be helpful in keeping people going during a moment of darkness.

You’re collaborating with synth artist ACOTE, and including the works of 18th century classical composers (Mozart, Vanhal and Boccherini), as well as James Rolfe’s Oboe Quartet. How did these musical flavours come together for you for this project?

The classical music in the program was selected by the Tafelmusik team. With this program, I’ve created a narrative arc that will be interpreted and driven forward by ACOTE’s electronic music. I have worked with ACOTE fairly regularly over the past couple years and love his musical sensitivity when collaborating with classical music. He manages to always find a cohesion between the different styles of music that also puts us in the dramatic world I’m looking to create.

In addition to including various takes on classical repertoire, you also incorporate acting and dance into your work. What drew you to creating these multidisciplinary pieces?

My relationship with music has always been very visual. This was apparent while studying music in my undergrad, when I began to seek out platforms that allowed me to physicalize music in different ways. This just seems to be the way I connect with music. I like to work with artists from different industries, such as dance, visual art, experimental electronic music, film, etc., because they bring new perspectives and wonderful ideas. I think it’s a lot harder to grow if you remain exclusive to one way of thinking.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the experience of this performance of Haus Musik?

Simply, I would love for audiences to leave with the message that art serves an important role in our society. Not only is it a source of personal and cultural expression, but it’s often used to keep people united, especially music. When there seems so much wrong in the world, it’s easy for artists and the public to doubt the value of creative work—I think about this quite often. It’s good to remember that sometimes singing a song with your community is what keeps people fighting and pushing forward.

Now, for the fun part of the interview. I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word? I don’t have a favourite but the first word that came to mind was cuddle.

What’s your least favourite word? Slut—such poison to hear and say.

What turns you on? Good dancing.

What turns you off? Narcissism.

What sound or noise do you love? My cats purring.

What sound or noise do you hate? Open mouth chewing sounds.

What is your favourite curse word? Fuck.

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue? Literally, nothing.

What profession would you not like to do? Performer.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Your family and friend are here.”

Before we go, anything you’d like to add or shout out?

Only that I’m looking forward to the show on April 26th. I think it’s going to be a really unique experience.

 

Haus Musik runs for one night only: April 26 in Longboat Hall at the Great Hall; doors at 8 pm. Get advance tickets online.

Sex, death, snakes & the healing power of flowers & family in Red Betty Theatre & the G Girls’ political, theatrical Ganga’s Ganja

We struggle in birth. We struggle in death.

I popped over to Geary Lane last night for Storefront Theatre’s presentation of Red Betty Theatre and the G Girls’ production of Radha S. Menon’s Ganga’s Ganja, directed by Jennie Esdale. Ganga’s Ganja headlines the Feminist Fuck It Festival (FFIF), a two-week curated festival of multidisciplinary women and non-binary-identifying artists presenting new, bold and entertaining works.

Set sometime in the not too distant future, sisters Mena (Pam Patel) and Ganga (Senjuti Aurora Sarker) have gone off the grid, living on a piece of land where Ganga grows and tends to medicinal marijuana to help ease Mena’s excruciating Multiple Sclerosis symptoms and give her some quality of life. Ever moving in and out of Mena’s consciousness is Kadru (Amanda DeFreitas), a black and gold snake that only Mena can see. Is Mena hallucinating or is Kadru her escort into the next life?

While Mena self-medicates with weed, deeply inhaling the smoke like oxygen, Ganga’s medicine is one-night stands that often keep her out all night, always returning to her caregiving in the morning. Mena is afraid of leaving Ganga alone, and Ganga is terrified of losing Mena. When their marijuana crop is stolen and they meet the fast-talking, charmer Nero (Jesse Horvath), a man with a shiny silver briefcase and a lot of ideas, the sisters’ world is turned upside down. In a world where non-prescription drugs have been criminalized, but big pharma is happy to use plants to create their products, who can they trust—and how will they find a way to let go of each other?

Political and theatrical, the themes of sex, death and alternative medicine combine with feminism, Hindu deities and sticking it to the man. Patel and Sarker have great chemistry as the sisters; and do a nice job layering their respective inner and outer conflicts. Patel’s Mena is cheerful and positive, despite her devastating diagnosis—this all masking her concern, which is more for her sister than for herself. Mena wants to die, to leave her suffering behind and start over in the next life, but she can’t bring herself to leave Ganga. As Ganga, Sarker is a combination of attentive caregiver and devil-may-care party girl; drowning her guilt and fear in random hook-ups, Ganga struggles with the harsh truth that Mena doesn’t have much time left. DeFreitas brings a sensual and fierce edge to Kadru; ever watchful and ever waiting, Kadru is not the menace she appears to be—and appears to represent the faith, tradition and ritual of the sisters’ Indian ancestors. Horvath’s Nero is the perfect picture of white, male entitlement; charming, mercurial and donning a bad boy rebel image, Nero is a 21st century snake oil salesman dealing in mainstream pharmaceuticals. He is the embodiment of Western right-wing conservative, corporate misogyny—all wrapped up in a pretty bleach blond, white linen package.

With shouts to the design team—Tony Sciara (set), Tula Tusox (costume) and Maddie Bautista (sound)—for their work in creating this evocative, otherworldly space that reflects both the South Asian culture of the sisters, and an intriguing environment that’s out of time and space.

Sex, death, snakes and the healing power of flowers and family in Red Betty Theatre and the G Girls’ political, theatrical Ganga’s Ganja.

Ganga’s Ganja continues at FFIF at Geary Lane (360 Geary Ave., Toronto) until April 22, every night (except Mondays) at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm, followed by nightly programming at 9:00 pm and 10:30 pm. Get advanced tickets for Ganga’s Ganja online and check out the rest of the FFIF line-up.

Repost: The search for a woman’s lost voice in the vocal, physical, emotional tour de force Mouthpiece

mouthpiece
Norah Sadava & Amy Nostbakken in Mouthpiece – photo by Joel Clifton

I had the pleasure of revisiting Quote Unquote Collective’s Mouthpiece, presented by Nightwood Theatre and Why Not Theatre—and back by popular demand on stage at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava’s stunning virtuosic performance rocked the packed house last night, receiving a standing ovation with sustained applause.

The film version of Mouthpiece, produced by Patricia Rozema, recently finished wrapping up; and the script has been published by Coach House Books. Mouthpiece continues at Buddies until April 22; the entire run is sold out online, but there may be some tickets held at the door.

The following is a re-post of my review of the premiere performance of Mouthpiece, which opened Nightwood’s 2016-17 season.

Nightwood Theatre opened its 2016-17 season at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last week, with a unique double bill of Quote Unquote Collective’s Mouthpiece and Anna Chatterton’s Quiver. Mouthpiece was the second show I saw last night.

Mouthpiece is a Dora award-winning Quote Unquote Collective production; created and performed by Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, and directed/composed by Amy Nostbakken, it was featured as part of The RISER Project last year. I missed that production and was so glad I got to see it this time around.

A unique piece of theatre that combines a cappella harmony, dissonance, dialogue and physical theatre, the two performers tell the story of Cassandra, who awakes one morning to discover she’s lost both her mother and her voice. She must pick a casket, flowers and a dress to bury her mother in – and write and deliver the eulogy. And she can’t seem to get out of the tub.

Both performers often play a single character, at times speaking in unison; and, in Cassandra’s case, create a dialogue with herself. From the hauntingly beautiful a cappella harmonies, to unison voice characterizations, and socially apt insertions of fashion magazine titles, ad copy and modern-day references to violence against women, the audience is both moved and tickled as Cassandra struggles with conflicting emotions, inner turmoil and a funeral fashion crisis. How well did she – or anyone – really know her mother? Her grasping for words, as well as her voice, opens up into the broader search for women’s voices. How women speak. How women are heard. How women are perceived.

Sadava and Nostbakken give compelling and entertaining performances. Shifting seamlessly from moment to moment, they execute gorgeous, fluid a cappella harmonies, unison spoken word and expressive movements. Conveying tenderness and ferocity, their work makes for a truly engaging and evocative piece. And they pull off some fabulous celebrity impersonations too, as well as some fun audience participation.

The search for a woman’s lost voice in the vocal, physical, emotional tour de force Mouthpiece.

Mouthpiece continues at Buddies until November 6. You can see it in the double bill with Quiver or on its own. Tickets are sold separately; you can book in advance online or by phone.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

Check out the Mouthpiece trailer:

 

 

 

Discovering & unpacking identity & marginalization in Jivesh Parasram’s entertaining, candid, mindful Take d Milk, Nah?

Jivesh Parasram. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Pandemic Theatre and b current performing arts, with the support of Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM), present the premiere of Jivesh Parasram’s one-man show Take d Milk, Nah?, directed by Tom Arthur Davis—opening last night in the TPM Backspace.

Do you have any Indo-Caribbean friends? Do you want one? Jivesh (Jiv) Parasram will be that friend. Canadian-born with Indo-Trinidadian heritage, Jiv’s short piece about birthing a cow, coupled with experiences of growing up in Nova Scotia, and connections with family in Trinidad and Hinduism, evolved with the assistance of dramaturg Graham Isador into Take d Milk, Nah? The title is Jiv’s impression of a Trinidadian cow; cow’s don’t “moo” so much as they “nah.” Also, cows are awesome (and we’re greeted by one outside TPM).

Beginning with a hilarious prologue that introduces the show as an identity play, Jiv is as much self-deprecating as poking fun at the solo show experience. And he nails it when he points out that identity plays are an especially Canadian thing. Part stand-up, part storyteller, part teacher, Jiv weaves cultural and family history with ritual, Hindu stories and personal anecdotes—and even a trip into his mind—gently schooling us along the way with patience and good-humour.

Like when he talks about the impacts of colonialism and imperialism on occupied and/or enslaved peoples. When slavery becomes indentured servitude, and communities of former slaves are regarded with suspicion and fear of an uprising, an already oppressed people become further separated from their loved ones and even their identities. Scattered into the marginalized edges of society, how do they live with others, often in a new world far from home, and not lose their own culture?

Growing up in the East Coast of Canada, neither black nor white, and the only member of his family not born in Trinidad, Jiv relates his personal struggles in the search for identity. The birthing of the cow back in Trinidad becomes an important symbol of Indo-Trinidadian cultural identity for him—and this story is full of excitement, edge-of-your-seat veterinary drama and hilarious procedural descriptions. He also relates the personal impact of 9-11; the increase in racist remarks and treatment when he was assumed to be Muslim and therefore a terrorist. And how this led him to embrace Hinduism, thus distancing himself from ‘those bad brown people’—and stung by his response to save himself when Muslims became the target of increased oppression.

Jiv doesn’t want to start an oppression pissing contest or point fingers of blame; well-aware that mainstream education tends to leave out or gloss over the history and lived experiences of people of colour (POC), and that some white folks haven’t had the opportunity to befriend a person of colour, he’s happy to school us. And he delivers some harsh truths with a spoonful of sugar—all while recognizing his own privilege as a straight, cisgender male with a microphone. But, then, this can get exhausting—for anyone who identifies as POC. The extra time and effort spent providing basic background information of cultural history and lived experience isn’t something that people who enjoy white privilege have to do. And important, nuanced and deeper conversations may have to be delayed or put aside in the process.

Hilariously entertaining and insightful, Jiv is a sharp and engaging storyteller. Playful and candid as he chats with us—including some gentle, fun audience participation—he is respectful and inclusive, even when pointing out our differences. Because, after all, as he aptly points out, identity is an illusion—and we are all the same.

Informative and uplifting, Jiv’s show may inspire you to learn more, or check your way of thinking about and treating those who aren’t like you. And you may wind up leaving the theatre asking yourself how you hold privilege, and if/how you are marginalized.

Discovering and unpacking the intersectionality of identity and marginalization through storytelling and ritual in the entertaining, candid, mindful Take d Milk, Nah?

Take d Milk, Nah? continues in the TPM Backspace until April 22; get advance tickets online or by calling the TPM box office at: 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended.

The run includes a Relaxed Performance on Saturday April 14, 2018 at 2pm; an ASL Performance on Friday April 20, 2018 at 7:30pm; and an Audio Described Performance on Saturday April 21, 2018 at 2pm.

Check out the trailer:

The profound cruelty & kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting Category E

Diana Bentley, Robert Persichini & Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Set and costume design by Anna Treusch. Lighting design by Gabriel Cropley. Photo by Tim Leyes.

 

Coal Mine Theatre closes its 4th season with the Toronto premiere of Belinda Cornish’s horror comedy Category E, directed by Rae Ellen Bodie—opening last night to a sold out house at their home on 1454 Danforth Ave.

The pre-show soundtrack of retro commercials playing in the lobby (sound design by Keith Thomas) is a kitschy prelude to the dark comedic terror that awaits inside, where we are transported into an eerily familiar futuristic dystopia—familiar because, like the most recent TV incarnation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the future is closer than you think.

Once in the theatre space, the audience sits on either side of a large cage that contains two cots, a wheel chair and a small bookcase (set and costume design by Anna Treusch); the ceiling of the cage is a large light box (lighting design by Gabriel Cropley), and there are large lighting fixtures outside in the hallway, as well as two security cameras mounted to the walls. Set in a testing facility, Category E takes the human trial stage of product testing to the extreme; the human subjects are stripped of identity and even gender—each bearing a number on their beige scrubs and becoming an “it”—and treated with the cold clinical detachment that would be afforded a lab rabbit.

It is here that the chipper and nervous new kid Millet (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) arrives, joining veteran lab subject Corcoran (Robert Persichini), who uses the wheel chair, and Filigree (Diana Bentley), who is either asleep or passed out. The tension and confusion are turned on immediately, as there are now three people occupying this cage and only two cots; this makes for an intense introduction between Millet and Filigree when Filigree wakes up. Not to mention the condition of the cage’s two original occupants, both filthy and looking in ill health—a stark contrast to the newcomer, who although in desperate need of a shower, is wearing clean scrubs and in perfect health. Corcoran wears an eye patch over one eye and his good eye is angry and red, and the dressing on his forearm should have been changed ages ago; he passes the time with a 17-year-old crossword puzzle. Filigree is pale and gaunt, and keeps scratching her lower back against the chair railing on the wall; her hobby is drawing disturbing portraits in crayon.

Meals, delivered in bowls labelled with subjects’ numbers, are signalled by a light and retrieved at one end of the narrow hallway outside the cage; a female version of HAL 9000 summons subjects by number to testing and shower time, accessed at the other end of the hallway. Standing on the bookcase to peer into the vent, Millet discovers the cage next door; like theirs, it also houses three subjects, but they cannot hear her. There are a lot of questions about what’s going on—and, like Millet, we learn the rules of this strange new world as we go.

There are vague references to “passing the eye” (or is it “I”?), which also gives this world a Handmaid’s Tale vibe, and brief moments of revelation—it seems Corcoran is a former scientist and Millet failed the test. And it appears that those who fail this test, or who have committed some kind of crime or corporate sin, are now considered as subhuman and become subjects in this testing facility. That is, with the exception of Filigree, whose odd, primal behaviour comes from the fact that she was born and raised in the facility, without parental nurturing or guidance (Corcoran has taken on this role, for how long is unclear). We get fleeting glimpses into the testing that they’re subjected to—and the lack of clear answers makes the mystery of this place all the more unsettling. Scene changes are accompanied by sexy voice-over ads, touting the various beauty and fragrances manufactured by the unseen corporation; mentions of side effects call us back to the cage.

Compelling, nuanced work from the cast in this harrowing three-hander, where moments of dark comedy barely take the edge off. Endicott-Douglas is a puckish, clever bundle of energy as Millet; the mercurial, chatty new kid in this space, Millet is endearingly awkward, with a can-do attitude and strong desire to fit in and make a contribution. Persichini’s performance as Corcoran goes deep into the calming, Zen-like quiet of a man of great intellect who at first sight appears merely world-weary and taciturn. Corcoran’s acts of kindness bring the much needed balm of tenderness to an otherwise brutal environment; and there’s an underlying sense of atonement in a struggle for redemption. Bentley is a delightfully quirky, at times menacing, wild child as Filigree; an untamed innocent, she operates on instinct, socialized under the care of Corcoran—and there’s a lovely, playful dynamic between them, especially when Corcoran acquiesces to Filigree’s requests tell them a story. What is the nature of that irritation on Filigree’s back? And why does Corcoran keep insisting on trading meals with Millet?

To see what I have seen! Category E is caress on the cheek and a kick in the gut. It is also a stark reminder that how we test product innovation in the name of consumer satisfaction is a choice. Cruelty and kindness are choices. If you’re either pro- or ambivalent toward animal testing, I think this play might just change your mind. A quote from St. Francis of Assisi, included in the program notes, is especially apt here: “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

The profound cruelty and kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting production of the dystopic macabredy Category E.

Category E continues at Coal Mine Theatre until April 29; get advanced tickets online—advance booking strongly recommended.