SummerWorks Play Review: Long Dark Night, August 8

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Toronto – You know, there’s probably as many parodies of the gritty, hard-boiled private eye stories as there are gritty, hard-boiled private eye stories. Long Dark Night is certainly one of them.

I’m sure you know the setup. A gritty, hard-boiled private eye is in his office drinking bourbon when a leggy femme fatale enters with a case: her husband has been murdered, so he has to meet with a series of unsavoury characters to solve the crime, only to be double-crossed a few times before things are finally resolved in the end.

In Long Dark Night, most of the satire is not exactly subtle. The PI character’s name is Skip Tracer; the femme fatale’s name is Femme Fatale (pronounced “FAY-tah-lay” in the show). It’s full of goofy puns, like one character being named Tuesday Mae, same as her mother and her mother’s mother, making her Tuesday Mae the Third. It makes a few winking mentions of old noir actors and settings when the characters reference things like “the corner of Sidney and Green Street” and go to the Tit Tat Club.

Aside from some of the puns (and there are some real groaners) and silly accents, there are some decent jokes here. John McNeill is pretty good as the bumbling, drunken PI. He’s sometimes overshadowed by Jessica Moss as his assistant Irene, even if her shrill, nasally voice gets a bit grating at times.

But a lot of the jokes are…well…kind of dumb. A couple of bits just get beaten into the ground. And the songs…the lyrics to all but a couple of the songs are quite insipid, and not to put too fine a point on it, but singing is not really this cast’s strong point. Having a live keyboardist and drummer on stage is occasionally an asset, but overall neither the live background tunes nor the musical numbers really add anything. The pace of the show is pretty slow, and for as much space as the slide projector and screen take up on stage, the backgrounds it projects don’t create a lot in the way of atmosphere.

With a parody target that’s been done well so many times before (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, for one, my personal favourite noir/gumshoe parody), this just doesn’t stand out, and it would need a lot of polish before I’d recommend it.

Long Dark Night runs through Sunday August 14th as part of SummerWorks. Check the website for schedule and tickets.

SummerWorks Play Review: Combat, August 6

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Toronto – I suppose that at some point in your career you might think of some conflict in your workplace in terms of a war. Maybe some passive aggressive type two cubicles over plays their music too loud, like they’re firing a hail of bullets over your head, or there’s a woman who acts abnormally sweet but is secretly hating everyone in the office and one day explodes like a grenade into screaming fragments of neuroses.

It’s not too difficult a metaphor to grasp. Combat drives it home by occasionally disrupting the action at a Shopping Network call centre with the actors setting up and playing war with toy soldiers on stage. Lead Virgilia Griffith plays the “rookie” at the call centre, and quickly becomes a little too good at her job, irritating her more competitive, chatty co-worker and inflaming the already tense workplace environment that also includes chatty guy’s underappreciated girlfriend, their well-meaning but cloying boss, and their emotionally fragile operator. Griffith also breaks in occasionally with a monologue where she’s arguing with her supervisors at another job, where she tries (but fails) to point out how bad the idea of planting pomegranite trees in Canada is. While she’s doing this, the other actors continue to set up plastic army men; they also sometimes army crawl around the stage and break into some contemporary dance-type moves that seem somehow combat-like.

Combat kind of hammers this workplace conflict-as-combat thing home repeatedly, but the action at the call centre is entertaining, particularly the hysterics of the emotionally fragile operator (Lisa Codrington) and the charm-turned-frustration of the chatty co-worker (Dylan Smith). The transitions from monologue to call centre to dance scene are sometimes a bit jarring and occasionally it feels like the playing with plastic army men on stage goes on a bit too long and belabours the point (ok, workplaces are like combat sometimes, I get it). It’s not a bad show, though, and worth a look.

Combat runs through Sunday August 14th as part of SummerWorks. Check the website for schedule and tickets.

SummerWorks Play Review: Elora Gorge, August 6

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Toronto – On a hot, humid Saturday evening, inside the sweltering atmosphere of the Theatre Centre, Elora Gorge was a mystery show with a good enough hook to really reel me in, despite how much energy I had to expend to fan myself with the program. It got off to a good start, with nice usage of some hanging sheets as projection screens and some interesting lighting.

Unfortunately, it’s a mystery show with no payoff at the end, and as a result it’s a rather frustrating play.

In Elora Gorge, a man is discovered dead by drowning in the middle of a forest, nowhere near any source of water. It’s a mystery worthy of someone like Sherlock Holmes, or at least TV’s Adrian Monk, and it falls to the town of Elora’s small RCMP detachment to investigate. The same day this body is discovered, a young woman moves back into her mom’s house in Elora after some wild and troubled years on the road and begins having nightmares about the disappearance of her brother, which took place many years before. Her old flame is one of the officers on the case, and as they rekindle their relationship, her nightmares and visions get worse, and she starts to wonder if there’s a connection between this unidentified corpse and her long-lost sibling. At the same time, the people of Elora start acting very oddly and become obsessed with the dead stranger, beginning with the woman who found the body and the coroner who examines it. This oddness grows to the point that the town decides to have a festival in his honour, and to display the corpse for all to see.

What’s affecting the townspeople? Who was this dead stranger in the woods? How did he possibly drown miles from the water? Alas, none of this is actually explained. Elora Gorge goes to great lengths to build the suspense over these questions, then never bothers to actually answer them. It’s suspenseful, it’s got good design and some interesting characters, but to end the show without providing answers to the central mystery is just baffling. I suppose if you were more of a David Lynch and/or Twin Peaks person than I am you might enjoy this very much, but even though it’s got some slick design and some fine acting, the ending left me cold, despite the heat.

Elora Gorge runs through Sunday August 14th as part of SummerWorks. Check the website for schedule and tickets.

SummerWorks Play Review: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, August 6

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Toronto – It is rare that an audience leaves a theatre with concern for an actor’s safety. I think most people who left Theatre Centre Saturday night with that feeling also left feeling dazed and stunned by what they’d just seen. I certainly did.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is a play written by Iranian Nassim Soleimanpour. It’s a sort of monologue from the writer to the audience, and a way for Soleimanpour, according to his writing, can feel free, as his writing travels the world in a way that he can’t, as he’s unable to get a passport. Soleimanpour also addresses a fair bit of his monologue to the actor reading it; in this production, the actor performs the play cold, actually receiving it on stage in a sealed envelope, and is different each night. For this performance we had the pleasure of having Eric Peterson on stage, an accomplished stage actor who’s probably best known for playing Brent Butt’s dad Oscar on Corner Gas.

Whether or not the play would be as good performed by someone else, I couldn’t say. Peterson has the kind of pacing and timing you can only gain with experience, and is remarkably steady even when the script calls for a vial of what may or may not be poison to be poured into one of two cups of water, with the intention that later in the show he will drink one of them. He shows off his talent for comedy often, at one point playing his interpretation of a “cheetah impersonating an ostrich” to great audience delight and delivering some of the funniest lines in the play in a perfect deadpan.

As for the play itself, well, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. Soleimanpour’s metaphor for oppression, his uncle’s “rabbit training” where the rabbit who is the first to figure out how to climb a ladder to get to a carrot is painted red and eventually ends up getting torn apart by the other white rabbits for standing out, is chilling.

Soleimanpour shows a sense of humour, while at the same time making a point about how, even writing as he is from Iran a couple of years ago, he can still manipulate a room full of people when they’re willing to let him. The audience participation roles are quite apropos and not too embarassing (I got picked to be in one of them, too), and one audience member practically jumped onto the stage to read the last few pages of the script, as Soleimanpour’s direction demanded. Later on, when I lined up with a group to shake Peterson’s hand and make sure he was ok, that audience member was telling Peterson that he’s Iranian himself. Apropos indeed.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is some of the most powerful, captivating theatre I’ve seen in years.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit runs through Sunday August 14th as part of SummerWorks. Check the website for schedule and tickets.