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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Nasty family schemes go to hell in Coal Mine Theatre’s primal, raw & darkly funny Killer Joe

Coal Mine Theatre presents KILLER JOE 800
Matthew Edison (standing). Seated (l to r): Paul Fauteux, Madison Walsh, Vivien Endicott-Douglas & Matthew Gouveia – photo by Matt Campagna

There’s a mini-Lettsapalooza going on in Toronto right now – and last night, I stopped by Coal Mine Theatre to see their production of Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe, directed by Peter Pasyk.

Chris Smith (Matthew Gouveia) is in big trouble. In deep with drug debts, he owes a mean son of a bitch named Digger $6,000. Chris doesn’t have $6,000. But he has a plan. A crazy-ass plan in which he enlists the aid of his dad Ansel (Paul Fauteux) to hire dirty Dallas P.D. detective Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew Edison) to knock off his no-good, alcoholic mother and get the insurance money. Chris and Ansel aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed – and decidedly not discrete – and it’s not long before Chris’s young stepmother Sharla (Madison Walsh) and kid sister Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Douglas), who’s listed as their mother’s beneficiary, are in on the plan. And because they don’t have the $25,000 they need to pay Killer Joe for his services, they need to come up with a retainer to keep him on board – and Chris and Ansel must decide what they’re willing to sacrifice to that end. Scheme on top of scheme unravels, each one worse than the one before it, and the Smith family displays some Olympic-level dumbassery, seasoned with sex, violence and some evil dark humour. And, of course, things go horribly, horribly wrong. Think George F. Walker meets Fargo in a Texas trailer park.

Killer Joe has a damn fine cast. The stakes are crazy high and the desperation is turned up to 11 with the knob broke off – and these actors really give ‘er. As Chris, Gouveia turns up the heat and pace with practically every scene he’s in, and he’s found the complexity of a man who’s deeply protective of his loved ones, but incredibly careless about putting them in harm’s way. You can see Chris’s mind turning like a hamster wheel, churning out worse idea after bad idea; this may be the first time in his lazy-ass, drug-addled life that he’s ever exhibited some ambition and he’s in it 110% – until second, and even third, thoughts start seeping in, that is. Walsh gives Sharla a saucy, manipulative edge; ruthless and focused in her way, Sharla’s got the chops for sexing her way to what she wants, but lacks the brains to think things through. Fauteux’s Ansel is a hilarious combination of clueless and cowardly; easily distracted by the TV and dumb enough to go along with Chris’s plan for “easy money,” Ansel is deluded in thinking he’s the true head of the household and truly baffled when things go south. Endicott-Douglas brings a spacey, child-like quality to the wide-eyed, Bruce Lee Kung Fu fan Dottie; likely brain-damaged from maternal abuse when she was an infant, she moves through the world at a dreamy, sleep-walking pace – and talks when she sleep walks, comprehending more than others think. Edison is chilling as Killer Joe; a tall, dark and handsome southern gentleman with a deep, gravelly voice and eyes that pierce, killing is commerce to Joe, and human lives are bought and sold with a civil, verbal contract. He’s a stone cold killer and merciless professional – and definitely not a man you want to cross.

With shouts to set/lighting designer Patrick Lavender, costume designer Jenna McCutchen and sound designer Christopher Stanton for their work on creating this filthy, seedy, trailer trash world. You can almost feel the grime on that linoleum and smell the sweat on Ansel’s greasy undershirt. The pre-show thunder is particularly ominous – starting out faint and far away, then getting louder and closer when the action starts. And, as for the ending, you’ll never hear Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” the same way again.

Nasty family schemes go to hell in Coal Mine Theatre’s primal, raw and darkly funny Killer Joe.

Killer Joe continues at Coal Mine Theatre until Apr 24. It’s an intimate venue and a popular show, so book ahead to avoid disappointment. Please note the 7:30 p.m. start time; the play runs 90 minutes with no intermission and no latecomers will be admitted. The box office opens at 6:45 p.m. and takes cash only at the door.

If you haven’t been out to Coal Mine Theatre for a while, also note that they’ve moved further east on Danforth from their original location; still conveniently located near a Magic Oven and now with their own storefront space (and washroom), it’s at 1454 Danforth Ave, between Greenwood and Coxwell.

And, speaking of Lettsapalooza: Also running in Toronto right now is Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of Letts’ August: Osage County (till Apr 23). You can check out the cowbell post for that show here.