Fear, loathing & melancholy at an office party in the razor-sharp, edgy, timely Casimir and Caroline

Hallie Seline, Cameron Laurie & Alexander Crowther. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

The Howland Company presents the North American premiere of their adaptation of Ödön von Horváth’s Casimir and Caroline, based on the original translation by Holger Syme, and adapted by Paolo Santalucia, Holger Syme and the company. Razor-sharp, edgy and timely, we’re front and centre witnesses to the goings-on at an office summer party, where bigwigs and nobodies alike eat, drink and dance as fast as they can on the rooftop patio while they all still have jobs. Running in parallel collapse are the tensions and crises between the titular engaged couple and the various corporate machinations and relationships that churn among their co-workers. It’s a one percent vs. 99 percent world of “winners” and “losers”, and no one is as they seem. Directed by Paolo Santalucia, assisted by Thom Nyhuus, Casimir and Caroline opened its run in the Scotiabank Community Studio at Streetcar Crowsnest last night.

Caroline (Hallie Seline) is enjoying some fun time with colleagues at their summer office party on a rooftop patio—until fiancé Casimir (Alexander Crowther) shows up in a mood and pisses on her parade. He got fired from his job driving their boss Rankin (James Graham) the day before, he’s broke, his cellphone doesn’t work and he’s pissed that Caroline invited him to the party. With brutally honest friends Frank (Cameron Laurie) and Frank’s girlfriend Liz (Caroline Toal) on his side, Casimir stomps in and out of the party, becoming incensed when he sees Caroline chatting with newly met co-worker, the fashionable Sanders (Michael Ayres), and later witnessing her being hit on by corporate sleazeball Rankin!

Add to the mix the boyish intern Trevor (Michael Chiem), who’s been tasked with minding the popsicle stand; the intimidating boss lady Shira (Kimwun Perehinec), visiting from the Montreal office; the neurotic Mary from HR (Veronica Hortiguela), who worships Shira and wants to rise up the ranks; and her cool, sharp-tongued co-worker pal Ellie (Shruti Kothari)—and you have a lively, fascinating field guide of some favourite office animals.

It’s a one percent vs. 99 percent world of “winners” and “losers” where anyone can lose what they have at any time and without warning. There are those at the top, trying to maintain or grow their position; those who want to be at the top, in some cases by any means necessary; and those who are either stuck at the bottom, or who have fallen from corporate and social grace. Everyone is wearing a mask of some description, and true colours are revealed as the action unfolds. And as the party fun and jocularity among colleagues devolves, so too does Casimir and Caroline’s relationship.

Casimir&Caroline-photobyDahliaKatz-1
Hallie Seline, Caroline Toal, James Graham, Shruti Kothari, Veronica Hortiguela, Cameron Laurie, Alexander Crowther & Michael Ayres. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Outstanding performances all around. Seline’s Caroline has a strong sense of determination and resilience, edged with lovely sense of vulnerability; and Crowther’s Casimir is a tightly wound combination of bouffon Stanley Kowalski and hurt little boy. Laurie is both intimidating and comic as the ex-con Frank; and there’s great combative chemistry with Toal’s edgy, gruffly candid Liz. Graham’s Rankin is an entitled #MeToo poster boy, but there’s something deep and sensitive there too; and Perehinec gives stylish dragon lady Shira hints of magnanimous warmth and openness.

Ayres brings an affable charm to fashion writer Sanders, keeping us guessing whether Sanders’ smoothness has something to hide. Chiem is adorably cheerful as Millennial intern Trevor, who must decide if he wants to venture into the dark side of corporate life. Hortiguela brings both comedy and pathos as the socially awkward, ambitious Mary; and Kothari’s chill, sharply candid, in-the-know Ellie makes for the perfect foil—though Ellie’s cruelty may not always be meant in kindness.

The storytelling is nicely supported by Jeremy Hutton’s sound design and Evan MacKenzie’s composition, featuring frenetic, whirling retro accordion music in the pre-show (a nod to the 1930s German origins of the play) and some heavier urban music sounds; and Reanne Spitzer’s choreography, wild and flailing, with some synchronized group dancing.

The melancholy is balanced by absurdity—with the old adage about comedy equals tragedy plus timing in high evidence here. And elements of the ridiculous among the characters are ultimately full of poignancy. Disappointment, disillusionment and discouragement abound. The world is a fucked-up place and the ground is shaky for everyone—and that changes how people behave and present themselves. In the end, those who are genuine, sharply candid and able to express what they want are the ones who’ll make out okay.

Casimir and Caroline continues at Streetcar Crowsnest in the Scotiabank Community Studio until February 9; advance tickets available online. This is going to be a hot ticket, so advance booking is strongly recommended.

Neighbour vs. neighbour in the timely, poignant The Land Grabber

The Toronto Irish Players present the North American premiere of James Phelan and Edward F. Barrett’s The Land Grabber, directed by Kristin Chan and opening last night on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage. A farm in 1881 County Kerry becomes a microcosm of the social and political unrest in Ireland as The Land War between tenant farmers protesting landlords’ arbitrary rent increases and evictions erupts. Living in the shadow of The Great Famine and the more recent Little Famine, neighbour is pitted against neighbour when one farmer, bent on expanding local food production, purchases an evicted neighbour’s farm; all legal, but morally abhorrent—and resulting in far-reaching and tragic consequences.

The Land Grabber is a revised version of Barrett’s (Phelan’s maternal grandfather) The Grabber, which was produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in November 1918, following revisions suggested by W.B. Yeats. A teenaged Phelan found a hand-written draft of the play and, years later, set about reviving the play in 2013 with the assistance of dramaturge/co-producer Maureen Lukie.

Successful farmer Johnny Foley (Thomas O’Neill) has his eye on an adjacent property and aims to marry off his daughter Mary (Meghan de Chastelain) in order to secure it. Mary has other plans and refuses, supported by her mother Ellen (Kelly-Marie Murtha). A visit from Pat Walsh (Ted Powers), a struggling neighbour at risk of eviction—and an old flame of Ellen’s—prompts assistance from Johnny’s son Billy (Blake Canning), who sets aside his own farm chores to till Pat’s land while Pat heads to the local fair to sell livestock in an 11th hour attempt to save his farm.

Despite his best efforts and successful sale, Pat is too late—and even his wealthy widow sister Kitty (Donna O’Regan) is unable to help—and the Bailiff (Dermot Walsh) arrives to execute the eviction. When Pat refuses to leave his home and the battering ram begins its heart-stopping assault on his front door,* his neighbours come out to protest—all except Johnny—and Pat and his medical student son Bryan (Paul Micucci) are injured as their home comes crashing down around their ears. Unbeknownst to even his own family, Johnny has already made a deal to pay off what Pat owes in rent and take over the Walsh farm. Refusing to listen to the protests of his family or consider alternative political solutions from Pat, who belongs to the Irish National Land League, Johnny goes ahead with his plan to grab Pat’s land.

The Foley family is subsequently shunned and oppressed by their neighbours; and Johnny is oblivious to the pain and suffering his actions have brought on his wife and children. Mary, who had left home to take a governess position, returns to be with her family and has her own decision to make; despondent and at her wit’s end, Ellen becomes a virtual recluse, choosing to worship at home to avoid the stone throwing and spitting; and the spirited, fair-minded Billy stands up for what he feels is right, refusing to side with his father. Meanwhile, Pat has gone into politics to further the cause and is doing well. Unable to sell locally, Johnny is force to travel to other towns. Tragedy ensues, and events threaten Mary and Bryan’s plans to marry when local police (Emmet Leahy and Benjamin Phelan) consider Bryan a suspect in a recent attack on the family. Eventually, Johnny is compelled to reconsider his acquisition of the Walsh farm—but all too late.

O’Neill is a compelling presence as Johnny; arrogant, stubborn and heavy-handed, there’s a world of pain and shame beneath that harsh exterior. Deeply scarred by the Famine and obsessed with making sure no one starves to death again, Johnny is deaf to alternate solutions and blind to the suffering of his own family—who, ironically, he’s most concerned about protecting. Murtha gives a gentle and heartbreaking performance as the loyal, religiously devout Ellen; but even Ellen can only take so much as their world is destroyed by her husband’s short-sighted, selfish decisions. Powers is playfully charming and politically astute as the determined, forward-thinking Pat; committed to a political solution to his fellow tenants’ predicament, he turns lemons to lemonade as he translates his knowledge and experience of farming issues to the political sphere. O’Regan is a feisty treat as the lusty widow Kitty; with a head for business and an appreciation strapping young men, Kitty injects both keen pragmatism and irreverent humour to the proceedings.

It’s a timely production for GTA audiences, given the current climate of high rents, rescinded rent controls and low vacancy rates, combined with frozen wages and a job market that increasingly favours precarious part-time/contract work over more secure permanent full-time positions. Landlords execute suspect renovictions, claiming they or family members are moving in, or turf long-term tenants in favour of opening Airbnb spaces; and tenants fight back with protests, rent strikes and deputations to local government. Desperate times can push people to desperate, sometimes selfish, measures—and also to new, innovative solutions—and hard times bring out the best and the worst in us.

With shouts to the fine design team for their work on this historical drama: Sean Treacy, co-producer Geraldine Browne and Anne Lyons (set); Karlos Griffith (lighting); Dan Schaumann (sound); and Bernadette Hunt (costumes).

The Land Grabber continues on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage until March 2; advance tickets available online.

*The production poster at the top of this post features an archival photo of this kind of  eviction action.