Sympathy for the devil & debate on the nature of humanity in darkly comic, thoughtful Dead End

dead-end
Christian Smith, Ceridwen Kingstone & Chris Wilson in Dead End – photo by Samantha Hurley

Theatre Lab opened its production of Jonny Sun’s Dead End, directed by Michael Orlando, on Thursday night in the Factory Theatre Studio, where I caught it last night, along with a post-show talkback with Sun and Orlando.

Set in an isolated and claustrophobic fourth floor corridor of an abandoned high school during the zombie apocalypse, we’re introduced to the world of Dead End via voice-over (by Ceridwen Kingstone) – and in darkness. A wry, matter-of-fact, school announcement vibe, we’re told we’re lucky to be in the high school, which aside from being run-down and neglected, has largely escaped the ravages of the apocalypse. Unlike the neighbouring middle school, which was not so lucky. But even so, this hallway was once the sad and sorry student path to the math classrooms – and for some of us, that is pretty scary in itself.

Stumbling into this space, two young men (Christian Smith and Chris Wilson) fumble about with flashlights, searching the darkness for possible danger. For a while, they are contented that they are safe and zombie-free. But not for long. They are joined by a lone zombie (Kingstone), which is now blocking their way out. One man (Wilson) has a gun. But it only has one bullet left. Dark hilarity ensues as the two men try to come up with a plan to evade the zombie and get to safety. Oddly, the zombie appears to be disinterested in them.

This three-person cast does a remarkable job within the span of about 65 minutes, where discussion and debate ranges from death, attraction, sexual preference, gender, the five second rule – and, especially, the nature of zombie life. As the man with the gun (the characters have no names here), Wilson is the sharp, cynical dominant of the pair; edgy and quick to jump to conclusions, there’s a soft centre under there somewhere. Smith brings a whimsical, at times goofy, philosophical vibe to man without gun; not wanting to take things at face value always, he’s continually questioning the status quo and what they think they know. And Kingstone’s zombie is a masterpiece of sound and movement; with the character based on movement and groan directions in the script, she’s created a distinct personality – bringing humanity to an otherwise wretched and solitary, perhaps even lonely, creature.

Is a zombie an “it” or does it retain its human gender identification – and if the latter, how would you know? And, of course, you can’t speak of monsters without addressing the nature of humanity. And who is that last bullet for?

The show was followed by a short talkback, where we learned that playwright Sun got into theatre when he discovered he missed it while he was in engineering school; he’d been really involved in high school and got into writing sketch comedy at U of T. Dead End came from an exploration of anxiety and depression – particularly internal anxiety versus external stress – Sun found that comedy was a good way to work through stuff; and the last bullet decision is a metaphor for this exploration. Dead End started as a sketch, and Sun realized that there was more to say, so it went from five pages to the 65-minute one-act script we see today. A question about character names and gender came up; the zombie is played by a female actor, but is referred to as “he” (by man without gun, called No Gun in the script) or “it” (by man with gun, called Gun). The characters were written without names, just descriptions, and with no set gender in mind; gender is pretty much irrelevant. One audience member noted that the dialogue is “sporadic and naturalistic” in rhythm and tone, and wondered how much of the play is improv. The cast is strong with the improv force, so Orlando let them riff around the structure of the script, creating a different dynamic every time, but still hitting all the cues (which was a relief to SM Heather Bellingham, I’m sure).

With shouts to the creative team for their amazingly creepy, eerie atmospheric work on this production: Megan Fraser (SPFX) and Valentina Vatskovskaya (production makeup/hair), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Jason O’Brien (sound), Roselie Williamson (costume) and Louisa Zhu (fight director).

Sympathy for the devil and debate on the nature of humanity in darkly comic, thoughtful Dead End.

Dead End continues in the Factory Theatre Studio space until October 23; advance tix available online. Come on out for some good, creepy pre-Halloween fun with two guys and a zombie.

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Toronto Fringe: Do you want to believe? Sharp, dark comedy in Bright Lights

 

bright lights 2

Theatre Brouhaha’s production of Kat Sandler’s Bright Lights opened to a sold out house of super enthusiastic folks at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace late last night.

Written and directed by Sandler, Bright Lights is set in a community centre, where members of the Alien Experience Support Group gather for their regular meeting to share their experiences of alien encounters in a safe, supportive space. The arrival of newcomer Zoe (Heather Marie Annis) shakes the group to its foundations; her abduction memory includes group organizer Ross (Colin Munch) – and his true identity and motive for forming the group come into question.

The action is fast-paced, and the storytelling is equal parts hilariously funny and darkly edgy; collegial turns combative as the heat gets turned up. Sandler’s outstanding cast is laser-focused and mercurial, weaving tight comedy with fringe society paranoia – and features the creative forces behind Punch Up, Morro and Jasp, Peter n’ Chris and Shakey-Shake & Friends.

Amy Lee is delightfully kooky as the group’s snack baking den mother Laurel; earthy and nurturing, she’s pregnant by a man who isn’t her husband and describes her abduction in terms of a classic rock song. As Zoe, Annis brings a bright-eyed sense of curiosity and tightly wound nerves as she steps into this strange world of those who believe. Peter Carlone is hilariously paranoid as Dave, who’s turned survivalist after suffering multiple probings, a family tradition; dressed in militia gear, he carries a duffle bag of weapons at all times – just in case. Equally hilarious is Chris Wilson’s Wayne; a former child actor who starred in a legal procedural TV show, he fancies himself a legal expert and claims to have been gifted psychic powers during his abduction experience. (Carlone and Wilson are also performing Peter vs. Chris at this year’s Toronto Fringe). Munch gives Ross an affable, welcoming vibe and keeps us guessing as he reacts to the group’s accusations against Ross’s humanity and intentions; Ross has definitely been hiding something.

The only thing for certain is that the dynamic of this group is permanently altered during this meeting – with suspicions, theories and alliances unfolding in unexpected ways. And, in the end, you’re asking yourself: What and who do you believe?

Do you want to believe? Alien abduction, conspiracy theory and suspicion in sharp, darkly funny Bright Lights.

Bright Lights continues at the Tarragon Mainspace until July 9; advance booking for this one is strongly recommended. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

Toronto Fringe: Big fun therapeutic trip through time, space & friendship in Peter n’ Chris Present: Here Lies Chris

Peter n' Chris Present: Here Lies Chris
Peter n’ Chris Present: Here Lies Chris

Toronto Fringe favourites Peter n’ Chris are back again this year with their own special brand of sketch comedy shenanigans in Peter n’ Chris Present: Here Lies Chris, running at Randolph Theatre.

When Chris (Chris Wilson) dies in a tragic accident, Peter (Peter Carlone) must travel through time and space to find a replacement Chris in an alternate universe.

Here Lies Chris features hilarious physical comedy, including classic comedy bits, chase scenes and interdimensional travel sequences – all interwoven with real-life personal conflict between our boys. From the hysterical opening, where the boys air drum along to Fun’s “Some Nights” – Peter’s arms flailing like Kermit the Frog – to the movie homage (Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, The Matrix, Stand By Me), kick-ass soundtrack and heartfelt conclusion, your eyes and seat may very well be wet (with laughter and pee, respectively).

Peter n’ Chris Present: Here Lies Chris is a big fun therapeutic trip through time, space, friendship and sketch writing partnership.

Peter n’ Chris Present: Here Lies Chris continues at the Randolph Theatre until July 11 – check their Fringe show page for exact dates/times. Meantime, why don’t you go ahead and give Peter n’ Chris a follow on Twitter.

Toronto Fringe: A rootin’ tootin’ wild west good time in Peter n’ Chris & the Kinda OK Corral

peter_n_chris_hand_gunsPeter n’ Chris (aka Peter Carlone and Chris Wilson) are back at Toronto Fringe, this time with their own brand of sketch comedy in Peter n’ Chris and the Kinda OK Corral – on now at the Randolph Theatre.

Peter Earp and Texas Chris become unwitting allies in the fight against an evil oil baron (inspired by Francis Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s character in The House of Cards) to save Peter’s farm, corral and beloved cow.

Hilarity and shenanigans ensue, in this show that is part scripted, part improv, part homage to movie westerns – featuring soundtrack bites from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Brokeback Mountain, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I especially loved the dramatic saloon entrance slow pan from the boots up, the horseback chase scene, and that Peter and Chris both got turns at playing the bad guy.

Peter n’ Chris and the Kinda OK Corral is a rootin’, tootin’ barrel of wild west fun!

The show continues at the Randolph Theatre until July 12 – check here for exact dates/times.

In the meantime, Peter n’ Chris are launching a web series Hardly Men, based on the Hardy Boys, and you can help them out by contributing to their indiegogo campaign.