Theatre Review – Coal Mine Theatre/Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison

Photo by Dahlia Katz

Jordan Harrison is a prolific American playwright whose output is considered a little off-kilter. By that, I mean, he usually begins with a bizarre premise, and Marjorie Prime is a perfect example. Not surprisingly, the play’s intriguing plot made it a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. Another of Harrison’s writing credits is the hit television series Orange is the New Black, so he knows how to build both character and tension, and both abound in Marjorie Prime. The play makes for an absorbing theatrical experience, and having the great Martha Henry on board certainly gilds the lily.

Marjorie (Henry) is an 85-year-old woman who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, we presume. Her daughter Tess (Sarah Dodd) and son-in-law Jon (Beau Dixon) have provided her with a Prime companion, a computer-generated hologram of her late husband Walter (Gordon Hecht). Marjorie has opted for the young and handsome Walter of her youth, rather than an aged one. The Prime service is designed, we gather, as a memory aid. Walter is fed memories by Marjorie, so the hologram can help her remember when she forgets, as they engage in conversation. He is a memory stimulator, as it were, whose sole purpose is to tell Marjorie stories. The holograms can also ask questions to clarify memories. While the Prime companions never forget anything they are told, they can also change memories if that’s what the person wants. To give away more of the plot would be a real spoiler, but I will say that there is more than one Prime.

As I was watching the play, I never considered Marjorie Prime as science fiction, but many do. I just accepted the fact that artificial intelligence would sooner or later come up with a CGI designed to help the elderly with failing memories, or as an antidote for loneliness, or as an in-home therapy session. I’d love to have such a CGI in the future. In fact, director Stewart Arnott has cleverly made the action so naturalistic as to seem ordinary, and this approach really helps the family dynamics that Harrison has built into the play. The storyline is not just about holograms, but real people and all the dysfunctions that make up a family history. We certainly learn a great deal about these characters and their difficult relationships. It’s also important to point out that Arnott, in a directing coup, has somehow made the holograms seem not quite real – a glassy smile, a too pleasant demeanour, and we pick that up right away.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

As a writer, Harrison is sly. He throws in an innocuous line here and there that is just a little odd, or that jars, and our mind goes, oh, oh, wait a minute, what does that mean? and sooner or later, we get pointed into a new direction. Harrison can certainly channel an audience, and it is an engrossing journey. Gillian Gallow’s simple living room/kitchen set is perfect for Arnott’s direct approach, but the director has let lighting designer Nick Blais and composer Bram Gielen go to town with special effects that add an air of mystery. At very specific times, and never overdone, we get a sound and light show that indicates that there is more going on than just reality.

Henry is a national treasure, and just having her on stage in Toronto is a gift of the gods. As the aging Marjorie, she uses her total body to convey a woman suffering from arthritis. Even her hands and fingers are acting tools, and she can manoeuvre her voice brilliantly, sliding it around words to create the optimum effect of meaning. From the get-go, Dodd presents a troubled soul. She really doesn’t believe in the Prime system. In fact, she has trouble believing in anything. Her Tess is a coiled spring waiting to pounce, and Dodd nails her negative aura perfectly. Dixon is the long-suffering Mr. Nice Guy, but we know that frustrations are bubbling just below the surface. Caught between his wife and his mother-in-law, his Jon is in a precarious position, and Dixon does a great job telegraphing that razor’s edge. From the start, Hecht is not human, and, although this is going to sound strange, his warmth has a coldness. His Walter is perfect casting, and Hecht gives his character both closeness and distance at the same time, which is quite a feat of acting.

Harrison raises many questions about the nature of memory in Marjorie Prime, and certainly, that is important, but that is not what I find so compelling about the play. For me, it is the intersection between the future and the present. Harrison’s creation of the Prime companion is a fascinating one, as is the way the playwright has detailed how these holograms interact with humans. We are our memories, and giving them away is a daunting prospect.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison, directed by Stewart Arnott, Coal Mine Theatre, Jan. 26 to Feb. 23, 2020.

Theatre Review – Coal Mine Theatre/Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe

killerjoe1Under artistic curator Ted Dykstra and artistic producer Diana Bentley, Coal Mine Theatre has become synonymous with quality and professionalism. The venue may be a storefront on The Danforth, but Coal Mine productions are top of the line in terms of programming and theatrical values. The company likes to style itself off off Broadway in design, and it’s a good comparison, because for many New York theatre goers (including visitors), off off Broadway is the last bastion of raw excitement amidst the musicals and safe dramas of the bigger theatres.

The Coal Mine mantra is to engage the audience with provocative material, and its newest production certainly hits the mark. Killer Joe (1991) is American playwright Tracy Letts’ first play. He is most famous for August: Osage County which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Letts’ specialty is family dynamics, no matter what rung of society his plays showcase. In Killer Joe, Letts has reached into the lowest strata of the gene pool. The protagonist family actually lives in a trailer so calling the Smiths trailer park trash is spot on. The play belongs to the genre I like to call low life comedy. Some of the works of American Sam Shepard and Canadian George Walker fit the category as well as Canadian Lee MacDougall’s High Life. Their worlds are populated by marginal people for whom crime and violence are a way of life. Men drink beer and knock their women around, yet despite the blood and gore, black humour abounds. Dialogue tends to be outrageously funny.

The Smiths live in a Texas trailer park. A Confederate flag is proudly on display and the fridge is filled with beer. The family is comprised of father Ansel (Paul Fauteux), son Chris (Matthew Gouveia), daughter Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) and stepmother Sharla (Madison Walsh). The plot revolves around hiring an assassin to kill Chris and Dottie’s hated mother to collect her insurance. The assassin in question is the Killer Joe of the title (Matthew Edison) who just happens to be a Dallas police detective. To give any more details would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, that from the moment Killer Joe Cooper steps into their lives, the Smiths are headed into further chaos.

killerjoe2It is very important that Killer Joe be a sex god, and Edison, with his tall frame, tight pants, cowboy boots and 10-gallon hat makes a gorgeous specimen indeed. The audience must find Killer Joe attractive or there is no story. Edison commands with a soft voice that terrifies. Everything about him is alpha male. He is one very sexy badass who infuses the play with his testosterone. In short, Edison’s Killer Joe is every feminist’s nightmare – a totally seductive bad boy who attracts smart good girls.

Endicott-Douglas as Dottie is the innocent. Her young face, blonde hair, wide eyes, and soft voice are a perfect picture of someone who transcends the sordidness of her world. She is a wonderful foil for Killer Joe. The rest of the cast is marvellous. Fauteux (who has never given a bad performance in his life) brings the simple, easily-manipulated Ansel convincingly to life. Walsh manages to be a tarty Sharla with brains, which is not an easy job. She must show both sides of her character, and Walsh pulls off the resident sex pot who also happens to be the sharpest tool in the Smith tool box. It is Gouveia as Chris, however, who gives the stand-out performance. He is the driver of the plot, a coiled spring of bitterness who is willing to bring his family crashing down around his ears. Gouveia’s restless energy never lets up for one moment. He is a young actor who has a great career in front of him.

killerjoe3Apparently director Peter Pasyk has been shopping Killer Joe around for years, but the play was deemed too violent and amoral by safer companies. It is Coal Mine who is mounting the Toronto premiere of Killer Joe, and kudos to them. Kudos also to Pasyk who has showcased both the relentless drive of the play, as well as the dark humour, without ever losing Letts’ edge. Fight director Steve Wilsher has choreographed very scary mayhem, and a warning, front row audiences are in the firing line, so keep your feet tucked in. Patrick Lavender’s set is suitably trashy, while Christopher Stanton’s sound design of mostly country and western singers adds to the atmosphere. Jenna McCutchen’s costumes are aptly down market.

In short, Killer Joe, replete with violence and nudity, makes for a disturbing (if very entertaining) visit to the dark side. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

Killer Joe by Tracy Letts, directed by Peter Pasyk, Coal Mine Theatre, Apr. 5 to 24, 2016.