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.

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The kids aren’t alright in the Howland Company’s raw, intense, disturbing Punk Rock

Tim Dowler-Coltman. Set and costume design by Nancy Anne Perrin. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Neil Silcox.

 

The Howland Company gets raw and apocalyptic with the Toronto premiere of Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock, directed by Gregory Prest assisted by Brittany Kay; opening last night in the Scotiabank Community Studio at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Set in present-day Stockport, part of the Greater Manchester, UK area, we become flies on the wall of the abandoned upper library of a tuition-paying grammar school, which a group of seniors has taken over as their hang-out. Lilly (Ruth Goodwin), the new kid trying to find her way, meets the good-natured William (Cameron Laurie), who’s more than happy to offer hilariously helpful tips to navigating the school. William also introduces Lilly (and us) to the rest of the gang: the sociable Tanya (Kristen Zaza), officially tasked by the school with showing Lilly around; the domineering Bennett (James Graham) and type-A Cissy (Hallie Seline), who are a couple; the jock Nicholas (Tim Dowler-Coltman); and the super intelligent, quiet Chadwick (Andrew Pimento).

William, who has an extremely poignant and unusual autobiography to share, is clearly crushing on Lilly, but she has eyes for someone else. Bennett is the class bully, with Chadwick as his prime whipping boy and some secret desires of his own; we see a brief moment of tenderness with his kid sister Lucy (Marleigh Merritt, who shares the role with Sophia Jin). Cissy has a photographic memory and barely studies for exams, but manages to get straight As—and is terrified of getting a lower grade. Nicholas is a gifted athlete, but doesn’t lord it over his schoolmates; he has a gentle, affable nature—and eyes for Lilly. Tanya is dealing with body image issues, expressing herself by adding colour to her look, and is just trying to fit in. The timid Chadwick is a science wiz, especially in physics—and he wears a jacket over his blazer to hide his school tie, which is different from the standard tie and sets him apart as a scholarship kid. Lilly, the daughter of a university professor who’s moved a lot, hides a self-destructive edge beneath a brave face exterior. The only adult we meet along this journey is the calm, steady Dr. Richard Harvey (Sam Kalilieh).

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Hallie Seline & James Graham. Set and costume design by Nancy Anne Perrin. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Neil Silcox.

The upper library hang-out becomes a microcosm of the school, which in turn becomes a microcosm of the world at large. All of these kids are bracing themselves, preparing in varying degrees and states of distress, for their upcoming mock exams, a litmus test for their finals later in the year. Facing a crucial transition point in their lives, these 17-year-olds are continuously bombarded with social, family, academic, socio-political and environmental expectations and pressures. And as the heat gets turned up, the space between them becomes a pressure cooker—and everyone’s going to explode.

In the program, the director’s remarks include a note on dialect from the playwright, expressing a desire for North American productions to use their own dialects; this means the actors speak with their natural accents—and it brings an immediacy and intimacy to the performance of this timely, disturbing play. This could be any school, anywhere.

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Cameron Laurie & Ruth Goodwin. Set and costume design by Nancy Anne Perrin. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Neil Silcox.

Outstanding work from the entire cast. As William, Laurie’s charming class clown persona gradually spirals from engaging and enthusiastic to deeply disappointed and troubled. And he has some lovely two-handers with Goodwin, who gives Lilly a secret dark edge of her own, masking Lilly’s own sense of fear and vulnerability.  As class power couple Bennett and Cissy, Graham and Seline appear to be polar opposites. Bennett’s sharp intellect is overlaid with a wild, sadistic streak, while Cissy is a tightly wound overachiever whose smug self-assurance belies an underlying fear of failure. And Pimento’s Chadwick is the mouse that roared, his scientific mind spitting rapid fire facts about the impending global apocalypse.

Shouts to the design team: Nancy Anne Perrin (set and costumes), Jareth Li (lighting) and Andy Trithardt (sound). The use of animal masks during scene changes, coupled with the jolting punk rock soundtrack and dramatic lighting blasts, highlight the raw, primal underbelly of these uniformed, and largely privileged, teens.

The kids aren’t alright. Ferocious urges, dark thoughts and painful secrets in the raw, intense, disturbing Punk Rock.

Punk Rock continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Studio till April 14; advance tickets available online. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

 

Beautifully profound unfolding of connection & self-discovery in Circle Mirror Transformation

Circle Mirror Transformation. Email PosterSpent a lovely afternoon at the Storefront Theatre yesterday afternoon – this time, for Play Practice Collective’s Toronto premiere of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, directed by Heather E Braaten.

Set in a windowless community centre space in small New England town Shirley, Vermont, three adults (James – Mark Whelan, Theresa – Pip Dwyer and Schultz – David Frisch) and one teen (Lauren – Laura Jabalee) set out together with instructor Marty (Jill Harland) on a six-week long drama class for adults. And throughout their time together, working through acting exercises and guided improv, they learn more than they bargained for.

For those who have experienced theatre school or acting class, it will come as no surprise that the exercises and techniques resemble a bizarre combination of psychotherapy and boot camp – often without rhyme or reason. Serious acting classes are not for the faint of heart. As the play unfolds, everyone in the class – including Marty – experiences an evolution of how they see themselves and the other participants as personal connections and relationship dynamics wax and wane. The transformation is gradual, with some intense and difficult – and comic – moments.

Braaten’s cast really brings it for this show. Instructor Marty (Harland) and student husband James (Whelan) are an affable, comfortable 50-something couple with an adorable meet cute story whose still waters run deep – and choppier than at first glance. Harland does a nice job with Marty’s supportive, earth mother acting teacher, whose calm presence is rocked to the core with past and present revelations. Whelan’s James is a real charmer, a good sport pal of a husband to Marty and a lovable guy with widespread appeal – maybe too much. As town newcomer Theresa, Dwyer (also one of the co-producers) gives a lovely performance that is both forthcoming and fragile; Theresa is an actress recently escaped from the insanely fast pace and chilly atmosphere of New York City, and one gets the sense that she doesn’t really need to take the class, but is looking for friendship and community. Frisch gives a nicely layered performance as the recently divorced Shultz, a sweet guy, perceptive and a bit naïve, and – like Theresa – feeling vulnerable and longing for connection. And Jabalee (another co-producer) is bang on as 16-year-old Lauren, awkward, ambitious and wise beyond her years, navigating her way through a class full of adults, some of whom are as old as her distracted, troubled parents. She’s the one who questions the validity of the exercises, wondering aloud if they’re going to get to do some “real acting.”

Everyone has a secret: from their past, or a present desire or fear. And all are profoundly affected and changed by the end of the class. And in a strange – almost magical – way, the room is a character in this story – a crucible in which the alchemy of transformation occurs, while remaining essentially unchanged itself. We see it in stillness and semi-darkness during the longer scene breaks that denote the passage of time from week to week – the atmosphere and barometer of the room only shifting due to the human presence and dynamics that play out within it.

With shouts to Laird MacDonald’s design work – the spot on community centre layout and lighting – and Blair Purdy’s sound editing on the moving and evocative pre-show and scene change music.

Circle Mirror Transformation is a beautifully understated, gradual unfolding of deep connection, intimacy and self-discovery, performed with truth and heart by an excellent cast. Get this into your theatre-going calendar.

Circle Mirror Transformation runs at the Storefront Theatre until October 18; you can purchase tickets in advance online. You can also follow the Play Practice Collective on Twitter and support it via its crowdfunding campaign (open till Oct 15).