Theatre Review – Human Cargo Theatre/Theatre Passe Muraille – The Runner by Christopher Morris

Photo by Lyon Smith

Propelled by the magnificent performance of Gord Rand, the visionary direction of Daniel Brooks, and the profound script by Christopher Morris, The Runner is a spellbinding and disturbing theatre experience that is not to be missed.

Rand plays Jacob Cohen, a member of ZAKA, the Israeli organization that collects the body parts and blood of Jews who have been dismembered by bombings or mutilated in car accidents. These orthodox Jews believe that their co-religionists must be buried whole. ZAKA also gets calls from outside Israel, such as Jacob describing the excavation of a mass grave of Jews in the Ukraine. Apparently ZAKA subscribes to the Hippocratic Oath that a person must do no harm, which is what gets Jacob into trouble in the first place.

The crux of the play revolves around the fact that at an attack site, Jacob saved the life of an Arab girl believed to be the killer of an Israeli soldier. Jacob truly believes in the Hippocratic Oath that commands him to do good, but he is reviled for saving her – and so his troubles begin. Apparently Jacob’s mother and her two sons immigrated from England after the death of her husband. Jacob’s brother Ari, who lives in a settlement in the West Bank, believes that the softer, weaker Jacob should not even be living in Israel because he lacks the warrior spirit. It doesn’t help that Jacob has always been an outsider and a closet homosexual, which has always put him at odds with his community.

Rand’s powerful performance is extraordinary. First of all, he looks every inch the part, with his kipah on his head, tassels from his prayer shawl creeping out from under his yellow safety vest, and sporting the beard worn by most orthodox Jewish men. Every little detail enhances his characterization, particularly his expressive hand and arm gestures, whether always pushing his glasses up his nose, or his habit of putting both his hands on his head. His personality slides between anger and bewilderment, defiance and incredulity, but always with fervour and passion. Director Daniel Brooks also functioned as dramaturge and so he is intimately acquainted with Morris’ provocative script. Clearly every word Rand utters during the 80-minute show has been worked out in meticulous fashion with Brooks. Nothing in his delivery has been left to chance. Rand is simply mesmerizing, and it is hard to imagine any other actor playing the role.

I am presuming that Brooks came up with the idea for Gillian Gallow’s brilliant set. A motorized running track sits on a long, narrow platform that juts out into the audience, and Rand is always in motion. Only very occasionally does the track come to a stop. At Jacob’s most impassioned outbursts, the speed increases to a frightening degree. Sometimes the track runs backwards which carries Jacob into the shadows. So as well as saying his lines, Rand is always running which makes his tour-de-force performance even more harrowing. Bonnie Beecher’s atmospheric lighting and Alexander MacSween’s evocative score only gild the lily.

If one is an “Israel, right or wrong, but Israel” person, some aspects of Morris’ riveting script will cause offense. Nonetheless, the very question of loyalty to the state versus doing the right thing – the central theme that Morris is grappling with – must be addressed. I would venture to say that the nation of Israel struggles with this dilemma every day.

Human Cargo Theatre/Theatre Passe Muraille, The Runner by Christopher Morris, directed by Daniel Brooks, Nov. 25 to Dec. 9, 2018. Tickets available at 416-504-7529 or www.passemuraille.ca/wp/tickets.

Photo by Lyon Smith

Theatre Review – In Association Production & Crow’s Theatre/What I call her by Ellie Moon

Photo by Dahlia Katz

What I call her is a brave but troubled play – by the former, I mean in terms of subject matter; by the latter, I mean in terms of writing and acting.

Playwright Ellie Moon clearly likes to tackle difficult material. Her first play, Asking For it, was a docudrama about sexual consent that was built around verbatim interviews conducted  by Moon herself. It was a sold-out hit. I wish I could say her second play was as strong.

What I call her has a ­thought-provoking premise. Graduate student Kate (Charlie Gould) reads about a family of adult children who wrote a scathing obituary after the death of their father, in order to make known the truth about this awful man. Kate’s estranged mother is currently dying in Sault Ste. Marie, and, inspired by the story, Kate, who was physically abused by her mother, fantasizes about writing a truthful obituary about her. She begins to write it, but says she will never post it. Apparently, her mother was sexually abused herself, and has won acclaim for starting a foundation to help victims of abuse. Kate wants everyone to know that her mother is not a saint.

To bring matters to a head, Kate’s younger sister Ruby (Ellie Ellwand) who is at McGill, arrives to beg Kate to contact their mother. Ruby is stopping overnight in Toronto en route to the Sault. The voice of reason in the play is Kate’s boyfriend Kyle (Michael Ayres), who knows how neurotic Kate is, but is willing to stand by her, nonetheless. He also tries to mediate between the warring sisters. It seems that Ruby, who is five years younger, does not really believe that Kate was physically abused, as she did not witness any incidents.

Moon does have strength as a wordsmith in her ability to write dialogue at cross-purposes. All three characters have their own agendas, and the conversation reflects this. They seem not to be listening to each other. On the other hand, the writing is choppy and it is difficult for the actors to find pacing and rhythm. The conversation between Kate and Kyle is particularly stilted. When Ruby arrives, the war of words between the three builds to a furious climax, and Moon certainly knows how to create dramatic conflict. The problem is that the playwright has so much she wants to say about abuse, and how it impacts on family, that the dialogue seems too crammed with information. The sisters, in particular, go through many twists and turns in mood and conversational direction. Nonetheless, it is hard to know which sister to believe, or how much to believe, which is a strength in Moon’s favour.

Then there are the inconsistencies. At one point, Kate says that the system failed her mother, yet this understanding does not soften her rage. We really do need further exploration here. As well, Kate starts off to write a “scathing” obituary, but ends up being kinder than she wants to be, which blunts the drama. The ending is also questionable. It is as if Moon is deliberately pulling in her fangs rather than going for the jugular, which would have made for an edgier play given the topic. It is not believable that one night is going to soften the relationship between the sisters to that degree. Also, and this is a trivial point, but it bothered me. Kate borrows Kyle’s computer to write her mother’s obit. How can a graduate student who has published stories, and who is studying creative writing, one presumes, not have her own computer?

As for the acting, there are problems. Gould as Kate seems to be too self-conscious, acting at rather than acting from. She fights for her words rather than conveying an ease of delivery. Kyle is supposed to be low key, but Ayres makes him practically invisible, although it could be that director Sarah Kitz wanted him underplayed. Ellwand’s Ruby fares the best, and she does manage to galvanize her colleagues, but Moon gives her character so many abrupt changes that any actor would have difficulty playing the truth. Director Kitz has tried for realism, but she falls back too much on having the actor currently at the centre, staring down the other two.

At this world premiere, What I call her would appear to need work on the script, and a stronger Kate and Kyle.

In Association Production & Crow’s Theatre/What I call her by Ellie Moon, directed by Sarah Kitz, Scotiabank Community Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, Nov. 16 to Dec. 8, 2018.

Theatre Review on Ludwig van/Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life

Photo by Dahlia Katz

Just published my review on the Ludwig van website of Musical Stage Company and Outside the March/ Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, book, music & lyrics by Anika and Britta Johnson, directed by Mitchell Cushman, music director Elizabeth Braid, Heliconian Hall, Sept. 13 to Oct. 14. Tickets available at 1-888-324-6282 or DrSilverTO.ca.

Here’s the link. https://bit.ly/2IfSzAz.