Trippy, quirky, thought-provoking mind-f*ck of a good time in The Summoned

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Fabrizio Filippo in The Summoned – photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

If it can be done it will be done.

Static for a time, then appearing as if being typed by an unseen hand, there is a quasi-religious elegance to these words. God meets science.

This is how the stage is set for Tarragon Theatre’s world premiere of Fabrizio Filippo’s The Summoned, directed by Richard Rose, assisted by Joel Bernbaum – currently running in the Mainspace.

Tech giant Khan (one name, like Cher, chosen himself) is dead and his executor has called an assembly of the important figures in his life for the reading of his will at a shitty airport hotel in Toronto, run by his former partner/ex Annie (Maggie Huculak) and her son Aldous (Fabrizio Filippo). The hotel was set up as a safe house for the world’s intellectual elite, and the guests are transported to the location with impressive precision and secrecy by Khan’s security chief Quentin (Tony Nappo). Company president Gary (John Bourgeois) and lawyer Laura (Kelli Fox), and flight attendant and Aldous’s sort of girlfriend Isla (Rachel Cairns) round out the guest list. Instructions are relayed to Quentin via Walkie Talkie (Alon Nashman).

Aldous also serves as our narrator, setting the scenes and introducing the players, and we learn about Khan via flashback scenes, where we see how a young Khan (Filippo) meets a young Annie (Cairns), and get glimpses into their work together and the genesis of his empire. It appears obvious to everyone except Aldous that Khan is his father. And, of course, the reading of the will is largely Khan’s way of messing with his dearly beloved from beyond the grave. And it all gets emotional and weird. Really weird.

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Kelli Fox, Rachel Carins, John Bourgeois, Maggie Huculak, Tony Napppo & Fabrizio Filippo in The Summoned

I effing love this cast. This is a wild, entertaining, high-energy ride – and this ensemble isn’t afraid to give ‘er. Playwright Filippo is a multitasking machine onstage, playing two very different characters. As Aldous, he brings an unflappable, almost eerie, sense of detachment and calm; minimally communicative and eschewing physical contact, there’s an Asperger’s quality to his relationship with the world. As Khan, he’s an impish, big personality; a mercurial and diabolically brilliant tech maestro with a lascivious appetite and flexible morals, he takes and uses what he wants, when and how he wants.

Huculak brings a lovely, layered sense of desperation and control to Annie; a brilliant, groundbreaking tech mind in her own right, her life forever changed by motherhood. Long estranged from Khan, she got the kid and he got the company, and she’s kept one foot in their once shared world by running the hotel safe house, perpetually longing for a connection with her son. Cairns is a kooky delight as Isla, the flight attendant who lives a seemingly charmed life; always living in the present, she is super spontaneous, hilariously irreverent and refreshingly honest. Nappo is a loveable combination of efficiency and wackiness as the cellphone snapping, air freshener spraying security guy Quentin; a schlub in a uniform, he also appears to be a narcoleptic, but this doesn’t stop him from executing his duties with tight-lipped, covert expertise. Bourgeois’ Gary is a great combo of funny and intimidating; an imposing corporate badass, Gary is entitled and cynical, and we see his soft underbelly emerge during the reading of the will. And Fox’s Laura is a gorgeous, ballsy 21st century Rosemary Clooney; pragmatic, but warm, she’s a sharp no-nonsense professional – and a woman with a confession to make.

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Seated: John Bourgeois, Fabrizio Filippo & Maggie Huculak, with Kelli Fox on the floor

On the serious side, The Summoned is an exploration of the history and evolution of tech, and its applications and implications for our lives. If it can be done it will be done. Forever and ever, Amen.

With shouts to the design team, especially Jason Hand (lighting and set) and Kurt Firla (video) for the minimalist, multimedia environment; the playing space has a crisp, sleek quality to it – making you expect to see Steve Jobs walk out to launch a new iPhone. (Yes, I know, he’s dead.)

A trippy, quirky, thought-provoking mind-f*ck of a good time in The Summoned.

The Summoned continues in the Tarragon Mainspace until May 29; get your tix in advance, kids – this show is packing the house.

In the meantime, check out this Theatromania interview with playwright/actor Filippo.

Outrage, love & brotherhood – The Normal Heart

Finally got out to see Studio 180 Theatre’s remount of  The Normal Heart at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night – and I was especially happy to be there as I’d missed last year’s run. Written by Larry Kramer and directed for Studio 180 by Joel Greenberg – remounted from its 2011 season in this year’s 10th anniversary this season – the play’s title was inspired by a phrase from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939.”

Set in New York City and spanning a time period from July 1981 to May 1984, The Normal Heart follows the struggles of real people – friends and colleagues renamed by Kramer for the play – in the early days of the war against AIDS. Writer Ben Weeks (John Bourgeois) is called to arms by Dr. Emma Brookner (Sarah Orenstein), and assembles a group of gay men in the fight against an unknown virus that is starting to take quick and deadly hold in their community. Joined by friends Bruce (Martin Happer), Mickey (Ryan Kelly), Felix (Jeff Miller), newcomer Tommy (Jonathan Seinen) and even his homophobic but supportive brother Ned (Jonathan Wilson), Ben wages war not only against the virus, but against apathy in both government and the community. And the fight turns inward on the group when it becomes apparent that communication styles don’t match, with out and proud Ben taking a more aggressive, uncompromising – and, for some, alarmist – approach, while closeted Bruce plays good cop, and aims to play nice and compromise.

It is that debate over how to best deliver their vital message to the gay community that makes this play especially interesting. Ben is accused of driving the community back into the closet and a position of shame when he urges gay men, at Brookner’s insistence, to stop having sex as a means of stemming the illness. For some, the precious sexual freedom gained in the previous decade is at stake. And it is this argument that provokes the question: Is having sex with men the defining attribute of gay culture? The group struggles with community apathy as the doctor gropes in the dark for answers to a question that no one else seems to care about. Internal battles – both personal and communal – ensue. Closeted vs. out. “Promiscuous” vs. “virginal” – which both sides put foward as a means to find love. And Ben and his brother Ned have their own battle over tolerance vs. acceptance. Ben believes that gays are the same as straights and refuses to allow sex to be the defining trait of his community – but his friends fear an attack on their culture as gay men if their sexual freedom is compromised.

The action unfolds on a square tile floor playing area (designed by John Thompson, who also did costumes) , with audience on all sides, and with minimal props and furniture to evoke place. And scene changes on the set are accompanied by throbbing 80s disco music (sound design by Verne Good), with the ensemble executing the change-overs – the flavour of their action in keeping with the tone of the scene.

This is an outstanding cast – which also includes Mark Crawford and Mark McGrinder, both in multiple roles – inhabiting characters with life and death stakes against an unseen enemy. Bourgeois is passionate and forceful as Ben, a man so much in his head he’s neglected his heart, his fragility showing in his love of his brother and his efforts to connect. Orenstein is a powerhouse, taking names, kicking ass and accepting no excuses as Brookner, wheelchair-bound by polio. Like Ben, she is overworked, overwhelmed and fed-up with political bullshit they have to navigate, but refuses to stop fighting. Lovely work from Kelly as Mickey, who finds himself wading through hell – his normally upbeat personality pummeled and broken. As Felix, Miller gives us a heartbreaking portrait of a vital, handsome gay man dealing with the ravages of disease. And Seinen’s Southern boy Tommy, the youngster of the group, is as adorable as he is chivalrous – a supportive friend and comrade in this war.

The Normal Heart continues at Buddies until November 18. Go see this.