Theatre Review – The Coal Mine/Mike Bartlett’s Bull

3Sadly, I couldn’t get to The Coal Mine’s latest production until late in the run. I say sadly, because the play closes this weekend which means I’m trumpeting a superb theatre outing that is almost at its end.

The Coal Mine, whose performing space sits under a pizza restaurant on the Danforth, is in its first season. Their mandate, under artistic producer Diana Bentley and artistic curator Ted Dykstra, is to create an off-Broadway experience that is as intimate as it is provocative. Their first production, The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis, was a monster hit. This second play, Mike Bartlett’s award-winning Bull, is another jewel in Coal Mine’s crown. Thirtysomething Bartlett is among the Young Turk playwrights who are spreading shockwaves through British theatre, and Bull is harrowing to say the least.

Bartlett’s focus is a sales office where a team of three are waiting for a meeting with their boss. Their firm is downsizing and one of the three will be let go. Think of Waiting for Godot meets capitalism, although in this case, the boss does show up to do the dirty. The crux of matter is that two of team, namely the sleek Isabel and lounge lizard Tony, treat their colleague Thomas, who is not one of the beautiful people, with utter contempt. The fact that they regard their cruelty to him as a matter of fact, even as a necessity, is the worst aspect of social Darwinism writ large. Their relentless bullying, harassment and humiliation of Thomas is like watching a wolf pack circling its prey for the kill.

Bull-0253For me, director David Ferry can do no wrong, and once again he has shown his brilliant craftsmanship. Ferry has understood absolutely that this play depends on timing, especially since the viperous verbal darts hurled at Thomas have to aggregate collectively like death from a thousand cuts. The English accents also work very well.

As the bitchy Isabel, Bentley presents a woman who is supremely confidant, magnificently establishing herself as a warrior of corporate feminism. She is attractive but deadly. Handsome Damon Runyon (I wonder if he is a relative of the famous Broadway writer) is perfect as the conniving, manipulate Tony, soft of speech, but murderous in intent. Mark Caven makes the most of his brief moments on stage as the cold fish boss Carter. He is rough, gruff and brutal with ice flowing through his veins.

When Dora nominations come around, Ryan Rogerson as the hapless Thomas, deserves to be among the nominees. He manages to be both feisty and vulnerable at the same time, and although he is neither passive nor submissive, nonetheless, his attempts to maintain face is a losing battle. It’s to both Rogerson’s acting acumen, and Bartlett’s writing skills, that Thomas is not a particularly likeable victim. His tormentors are far more interesting, which makes the play all the more disturbing, even subversive.

imagesSteve Lucas’ set is a cage that surrounds the action on three sides, but looking through the wire distorts one’s vision. It works in theory, but does get distracting over time. Nonetheless, the cage does conjure up thematic images like a bull ring, a bull pen, even bullying itself.

And a final note of kudos to The Coal Mine. The company’s knack for picking fascinating plays, and peopling the stage with talented actors to breath life into the words, makes The Coal Mine one of Toronto’s must see theatre experiences.

(The Coal Mine’s production of Mike Bartlett’s Bull runs from Mar. 17 to Apr. 5.)



Theatre Review – Liza Balkan’s Out the Window

The Theatre Centre’s annual Free Fall Festival is a showcase of experimental works, some more finished than others.

Liza Balkan’s Out the Window is close to a full-scale production, and let’s hope that will happen very soon. The potency of the play did carry through despite actors being on script. Balkan says in her notes that the play was created to be read with minimal rehearsal, but I think she should consider having it memorized. The scripts are distracting over time.

But first for some background. On Aug. 9, 2000, at 1 am, Otto Vass, a 55-year-old father of 5, went to a 7/Eleven store in the Lansdowne area to get some BBQ sauce.  At first there was some altercation in the store. Then the police arrived. This is where Balkan comes in. Looking out her window, hence the title of the play, she saw the first two policemen beat Vass, who were then joined by the next two policemen. Four policemen with batons, and one dead Vass.

The play is about the vicissitudes of the justice system. It begins with the actual transcripts of the trial where prosecution witness Balkan is manhandled by the defence lawyer so as to discredit her truth. Then there is backtracking to the inquest where she at least gets her truth out.

The beauty of this play is the absence of a linear line. Balkan as a playwright is very unpredictable. For example, there is a scene where both the defence and prosecuting attorneys are present at a luncheon to answer Balkan’s questions post-trial as she does her research. Also included are six volunteer guests from the audience plus real food. The conversation is cynical to say the least with both men in casual conversation. The opposing views have disappeared into word play about the law. From this good-natured lunch, we then hear the policemen testify and the so-called “Blue Code of Silence” raises its head.

This unconventional approach, plus an excellent video component, make for a very disturbing play. Incidentally, via video, Balkan gets to slip in statistics of other deaths due to police overkill. Suffice it to say that the policemen in the Vass case were exonerated. After this experience, why would anyone get involved in the justice system?  (FYI, Balkan has an extensive website devoted to the case.)

Another ploy is to have excellent actor Julie Tepperman play Liza Balkan, and this third party approach lends credence to the objective view with Balkan functioning as director. When you have the likes of David Ferry for the defence, and R.H. Thompson for the prosecution, two of the best actors in the country, the former a malevolent imp, the latter Mr. Sobersides with no taste for the jugular, that makes for a powerhouse cast of contrasts. The young men who portray the policemen (who also cleverly enact the crisp and attentive waiters at the luncheon and other roles), are all very good, not to mention good-looking (Jason Siks, Brett Donahue, Zahir Gilani, and Matt Murray). Any juror is going to have to think twice about incarcerating these clean-living, wholesome-looking, mother’s favourites. Trevor Schwellnus has kept the set clean and workable, which also helps. One presumes the outstanding use of video is also Schwellnus’ contribution with its judicious mix of text and graphics.

Let’s hope that someone picks up this play for a long run, and keeps the cast intact.

Liza Balkan’s Out the Window, (featuring Julie Tepperman, David Ferry, R.H. Thompson, Jason Siks, Brett Donahue, Zahir Gilani, and Matt Murray, directed by Liza Balkan), Theatre Centre’s Free Fall Festival, Mar. 17 to 25, 2012.