This bodes well.
I’ve just moved near to Toronto, and set out in January to start to get to know my new theatre scene. My first experience was of two complex, excellent, edgy plays by women, in superb productions. They made me want to write about them. So, here we go…
(Requisite warning: this blog is full of spoilers.)
Hannah Moscovitch is a prolific young playwright whose work has been produced across Canada; she has won multiple Dora Mavor Moore awards (Toronto’s major theatre prizes), and has been nominated for the Canadian Governor General’s Award and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. She is currently writer in residence at the Tarragon and a double bill of two further short plays is opening there next week. She was a writer on the award-winning CBC radio drama Afghanada, ‘a grunts-eye perspective on the war in Afghanistan’, and the experience of interviewing soldiers and war correspondents for that programme was part of what led her to write This is War. It’s set in the Panjwaii district of Afghanistan sometime around 2007-2008, a period when Canadian forces were holding the area for the NATO-led coalition.
The scenography (by Camellia Koo) and pre-show soundscape (by Thomas Ryder Payne) establish an intense, claustrophobic atmosphere: a web of corrugated beige streamers covers the walls and ceiling making the audience feel as if they’re in a flimsy tent, as gunfire and explosions sound all around them. The action starts abruptly as three servicepeople appear in spotlights answering questions of an unseen, unheard journalist. The caginess in their interaction with the interviewer is (Moscovitch tells us in a stage direction) typical of Canadian Forces soldiers’ attitude to journalists. Depicting this is also part of Moscovitch’s smart dramaturgical strategy to keep audiences intrigued, as we start to piece together the story the journalist is pursuing: Something very bad went down in a joint operation with the Afghan National Army, something the soldiers don’t want to talk about, and in which they were implicated.
Getting to the bottom of this military intrigue is the ostensible narrative driver of This is War, but there is another set of incidents around which the play obsessively circles. The action flashes back and forth between the interviews and previous events in Panjwaii, and within the first ten minutes, the story goes somewhere very risky — to a sexual encounter between Master Corporal Tanya Young (Lisa Berry) and her commanding officer, Captain Stephen Hughes (Ari Cohen), in the days before the joint op.
He makes the first move and she initially resists, but it is clear we are meant to see the act as consensual. Things get more fraught as the jagged, fragmented scenes accumulate and we find out that 20-year-old Private Jonny Henderson (Ian Lake) is infatuated with Young, and that she has been sexually involved with him, too (Moscovitch beautifully evokes how vulnerable and immature Henderson is via his inarticulacy: ‘girls suck’ is all he can muster when he finds out that Young is fooling around with someone else). The unfolding affiliations, desires, regrets, and jealousies complicate an already intense environment and render the soldiers’ reticence to talk to the journalist more ambiguous. Not only are there questions about how the unit may be implicated in the horrible turn the joint op takes; but the choices Young, Hughes, Henderson, and the medic Anders (Sergio Di Zio) made may have been affected by these interpersonal issues, with life-shattering implications for all of them, particularly Henderson.
This is hot-potato stuff, on many levels. The female character is presented as sexually active while serving in a combat situation; we’re let know this is against the rules, but tolerated if kept under wraps (don’t ask, don’t tell, basically). The fact that she’s promiscuous raises further questions, and initially I was concerned that Moscovitch was reinforcing the woman-as-whore stereotype. As another critic worried, the play might ‘even be used by misogynists as an argument against having women in the military.’ But such a snap judgment would discredit the complexity of Moscovitch’s project. Hughes, for example, is also presented as promiscuous: having just split up from his wife he brags about visiting prostitutes; Anders has just treated him for chlamydia; and in another daring, complex turn, Hughes and Anders, who is gay, share an erotically-charged moment on the same night as Hughes’ and Young’s tryst.
That Anders, depicted as dependable, humane, Christian, and in a committed relationship at home, reveals himself willing for a sexual encounter with the sexist (and STD-bearing) Hughes — and that Hughes, who is so uncomfortable with homosexuality that he stumbles repeatedly over how to refer to Anders’ partner (finally settling on ‘your guy’) would broach the encounter in the first place — communicates an extreme situation in which human connection becomes a survival tactic. In a further telling detail, we discover that Hughes’ personal shorthand for wanting sex is ‘needing a drink’ (alcohol is forbidden in the camp): sex is equated with escape, loss of self, recreation — with anything-but-this. I don’t want to suggest that the play irons over gender and sexual difference, but rather that it encourages us to think beyond our civilian assumptions to consider how the extraordinary pressures of combat must push those experiencing them to the edges of their experience and their understanding of self.
Given this, it is surprising that the play exhibits some uncertainty about its presentation of Young’s behaviour, several times directly tying it to a previous traumatic combat experience from which she has not fully recovered. Such a linear, causal explanation feels reductive of the psychosexual complexities play and production communicate. The play’s ending also doesn’t quite land solidly. The woman we understood as the centre of the story, Young, all but disappears from the action, as the focus shifts to what went wrong in the joint op: the Afghan National Army submitted members of the Taliban to a horrible, slow death while the Canadian forces (on Hughes’ order) occupied themselves with trying to save their own, an activity complicated by the questionable, subjective actions of the play’s characters. Thus the play, perhaps, offers a critique of the geopolitics underlying this specific situation: in Hughes’ defensive final statement to the interviewer — ‘Hey/this is war’ — we might read a comment on the continued Western presence in Afghanistan: we’re there, but we’re always going to look after our own interests first, even in the face of Geneva Convention-defying atrocity. This is suggested but not further commented on; while the play never promised a direct statement on with the Western presence in Afghanistan, this narrative turn ends up feeling somewhat lateral and anticlimactic, in part because it’s positioned as the payoff — the big reveal — when it was the interpersonal relations that really held audience attention.
Rose’s production, for its part, never wobbles: cohesive, stripped-down production values and brilliantly focused performances create a compelling atmosphere of heat, dust, and restless anxiety. All four performers are superb and have top-line Canadian theatre credits: this felt like the beginning of a great crash course for me in who’s who in the Toronto acting corps. One element of the casting requires special note: Moscovitch says in her script that the actors can be of any ethnic and cultural background; in this production, Young is played by a black woman, Lisa Berry, and the other three characters are white. Because the performers deliver highly affecting, credible performances that invite audiences to believe in the extreme situations depicted, the characters and their relationships successfully come across as individualized rather than as representative or allegorical. It’s not that the actors’ ethnicities disappear, but rather that they signify only as themselves. I found this progressive, though others with different investments might see it differently.
From war abroad to the battleground of the domestic: Kristen Thomson is a Toronto-based actress who is best known for I, Claudia, her 2002 one-woman play about a pre-adolescent girl dealing with her parents’ divorce, which she and director Chris Abraham turned into a well-received film. Someone Else is Thomson and Abraham’s latest collaboration, a multi-character play about a middle-aged couple in individual and marital crises. This is an unusual piece of dramaturgy that, in a lesser production, might have come off feeling uneven: the story ends up going in directions not signalled at the outset; there is a revelation about two-thirds of the way through that’s so major it could have felt out of nowhere; and there’s another character you’d expect to figure centrally — the couple’s 14-year-old daughter (Nina Taylor) — who appears only briefly and peripherally.
There is, however, a dense emotional logic that holds the play together. The first moments present Cathy (Thomson), a stand-up comedienne, practicing new material for her act. She doesn’t play to the audience; it’s as if we’re eavesdropping on an at-home rehearsal session. The action is launched when Cathy invites her husband Peter (Tom Rooney) onstage: he sidles in, hands in pockets, bearded and uneasy. ‘Peter, you’d better plug your ears because I am going to talk about you quite a bit,’ she says. ‘I’m going to talk about our relationship.’
What follows is a mixture of therapy sessions (couples and individual) played directly to the audience; enacted scenes; and one of Cathy’s stand-up routines. All of these advance the story of Peter’s unlikely, ambiguous entanglement with April (Bahia Watson), a troubled 19-year-old he (an M.D.) treats in his community clinic, and its fallout in all their lives. So, ostensibly, this is a play about Peter being involved with someone else; but on deeper levels it’s about all three of the central characters’ struggles with intimacy — with letting someone else past their defenses; and, eventually it’s about Peter finally facing up to a life-changing event that happened when he was 19 (exactly April’s age), which was when ‘I stopped being me. And I became someone else. This. And I pretend that this is me.’
Julie Fox’s set and Kimberly Purtell’s lighting design immediately communicate that we are not in naturalism-land. In fact, I felt transported to somewhere in Germany, or perhaps to London’s Royal Court: the stark, unadorned white rectangle flooded with clear, harsh light signals a postdramatic aesthetic that for me prompts associations with continental European and English new-writing theatres. These choices, along with Abraham and his ensemble’s approach to performance, suit the play beautifully: the scenes are played for raw emotional truth, in an environment that feels clinical, almost scientific. This aesthetic world creates a perfect crucible for the play’s unusual form, letting its internal logic and momentum drive the stage event, as opposed to traditional plot conventions.
In Thomson’s writing, and Thomson and Rooney’s performances, the play offers a believable, sad portrait of a couple whose relationship has calcified into self-perpetuating roles. The more Cathy hectors, the more Peter blocks and seethes. Here’s how they talk to each other on the morning after their 18th wedding anniversary:
Cathy: I actually went to sleep last night wondering how you managed not to look at your phone all night. And I thought — you know, when you were getting irritable — I thought it must partly be the stress of having to listen to full sentences without checking for messages.
Peter: I’m not biting.
Cathy: But you want to.
Peter: I’m not.
Cathy: You’re right, you mustn’t. You must wield the blood-spattered dagger of indifference.
Peter: I don’t even know what that means.
The dialogue throughout, as here, is brilliantly observed: Thomson captures the way smart, angry middle-aged people talk (and, for that matter, the way smart, angry 19- and 14-year-olds talk, too). The details she comes up with to illustrate character and relationship are wonderfully original (there’s an anecdote about a Spirograph drawing and a potato gun that’s too long to go into here — but it’s fantastic).
The performances are remarkable, and this (as with This is War) felt like a privileged opportunity to start to acquaint myself with performers who Toronto-area spectators already know well. Rooney has appeared in many major Canadian theatres and has played leading roles at the Stratford Festival for the past five years; he’s apparently known for the emotional restraint of his stage appearances. Indeed this is a very understated performance, but one in which there are a wealth of suppressed ideas and emotions going on under his surface. This calm is so studied, so controlled, that we become closely attuned to any chinks in that armour, such as the first tiny bit of self-revelation he offers to April (‘my life doesn’t match my thoughts, like yours does’). Thomson describes April in the playscript as ‘one of a kind’ and this is exactly what she and Abraham have found in Bahia Watson; the combination of streetwise bravado and puppyish vulnerability she brings to the role suits it perfectly. April is a tough girl from a difficult background who self-harms because it’s a way to ‘say the real truth.’ She latches onto Peter because he is sympathetic and takes her seriously; he is drawn to her candour and to her habits: their intimacy is forged by her teaching him to cut himself — a narrative gesture that in lesser hands might have stretched credibility, but here comes across as moving, a bit scary, and extremely intimate, thanks to Rooney and Watson’s quiet chemistry and intense focus.
The trickiest role here is Cathy. Throughout it’s as if not just her husband but the play itself is always pulling away from her: while it starts out driven by Cathy’s desire to get to the bottom of her marital problems, it ends up a dissection of Peter’s psyche (this does help us, eventually, understand why Cathy is so bitter). Her paradoxical condition, if we diagnose her via her behaviour and Peter’s comments about it, is that of performative, narcissistic self-loathing: she hates what’s happening to her life and she hates how she reacts to it, but she keeps on reacting that way, not least because it becomes material for her next stand-up act. Thomson attacks the role with full emotional and physical commitment: costuming choices (baggy sweats, a shapeless nightgown/cardigan/sleeper socks combo) underline the impression of someone just about giving up on self-care. While her scenes with Rooney are intensely, sadly credible, there are points in her solo playing when Thomson’s playing feels forced, as if she can’t quite deliver the level of intensity she’s written for herself.
The most risky representational gesture in play and production is its portrayal of a disabled character, David, by an able-bodied actor (Damien Atkins). The introduction of the character is surprising: he rolls onstage in a motorized wheelchair and sits there, silently, for a full four scenes before his moment comes to speak. We discover that 20 years ago Peter inadvertently gave David the head injury that disabled him, and their one-on-one meeting is the first time that Peter has had the courage to see him since. Their 10-minute-long encounter is very difficult: David angrily (lots of anger in this play!) rails on Peter’s attempts to apologize (‘You get your head kicked in by some asshole and next thing you know, he’s the doctor and you’re the liability’) and then exits, not to be seen again. Thomson leaves open in her script how David’s disability manifests itself, and Abraham and Atkins make a strong choice: he speaks with extreme difficulty, screwing up his face and sometimes mangling words beyond recognition; his hands are twisted on his lap. It’s an extremely skilled, effective performance of a plum cameo, but it did make me wonder about local casting conventions and expectations: were attempts made to cast a disabled actor before opting for an able-bodied one?
What then, after all this pain and truth-telling? Of all unexpected things, a happy ending, a final twist in this strange and implausibly affecting journey of a play. Having revealed just about everything else, it’s probably unfair for me not to tell by what delicately executed means the play leaves the audience full of hope — but somehow that feels like a secret gift that only we who were there in person get to take away. Let this be my resistant gesture calling for a revival: more people deserve to see this beautiful show.
So, keep it coming, Toronto. These two excellent productions have set the bar high.