I must begin by saying that I don’t know where director Philip Akin found his leads for Anna Ziegler’s Actually, but they are simply sensational. As for the play itself, clearly the American writer is a gifted dramatist with a brilliant knack for creating character. All in all, the topnotch acting, intense dialogue, terrific production values and precision direction make Actually a totally compelling theatre experience. This production is a class act.
The subject of this 2017 play could not be more timely or more troubling. We learn early on that Princeton freshmen Tom Anthony (Tony Ofori) and Amber Cohen (Claire Renaud) had a one night stand that has led to Tom being accused of rape. Ziegler’s script cuts between personal monologues spoken by each protagonist, and the actors coming together to enact the events that led up to the night in question. Along the way we find out personal details about the students themselves, their differing versions of what happened, and their reaction to the college hearing that will supposedly determine the truth.
Charismatic Tom is Black, and from an underprivileged home. He was lucky to get into a prestigious high school because a teacher encouraged his musical abilities. He is, apparently, a very talented classical pianist, and he aced his SATs. Tom is good-looking, smart, self-assured, and a prodigious sexual swordsman with a string of conquests to his credit, including a teacher. In just two months at Princeton, he’s already bedded many a wench. In Ofori’s brilliant hands, Tom swaggers through life, at least on the surface.
Amber, from a middle class Jewish background, is the complete opposite. She knows that she is not particularly attractive, and that she lacks the physical attributes that would make her really bootylicious. Her lack of confidence has turned her into a motor-mouth which covers up her nervousness. Clearly she is very bright, and her nonstop chatter is peppered with clever literary references (she’s an English and creative writing major). As well, Amber’s sexual activity has been limited, and not very satisfying. In terms of character portrayal, Renaud is so natural as to be astonishing.
The play is more than a he said/she said, because Ziegler’s focus is on Tom and Amber as people. It’s a mark of her accomplished writing that our sympathies keep switching back and forth between the two characters, both of whom are very human and very vulnerable. When it comes to detailing motivation, Ziegler is a master, and she knows just how to dole out information to keep the audience on its toes. There are other characters whom we never see, but who play important roles in the lives of Tom and Amber, and just through narrative alone, Ziegler renders them as alive as the two on stage.
The playwright puts these two protagonists through a riptide of emotions as she carefully plots out the misadventures and misunderstandings that infect their lives. She also includes a damning diatribe against the pressures that force college freshmen into a whirlwind of nightly parties, which leads to constant drunkenness, which means they can’t keep up with their schoolwork, which means living in a constant state of chaos. Both Amber and Tom were pissed out of their minds when they had their disastrous encounter, which makes the question of consent a dodgy matter at best. What actually happened between the two (and hence the title) is up to each audience member to decide. Ziegler certainly isn’t going to tell us.
Sean Mulcahy’s fascinating set is a college quad with a curved stone wall with stone benches, surrounding a raised plinth. The enclosure gives the play a claustrophobic feeling which is a metaphor for the interior turmoil that both Tom and Amber are experiencing. Steve Lucas’s pin-spot lighting switches from character to character as needed, while opening up when the two are together. He has also added coloured accent lights which bathe the set in surrealistic hues. After all, what is happening to these two young people is taking them out of the normal.
In terms of directing, Akin is at the top of his game with this production. The pacing is superb as each actor takes their turn, never missing a beat. Often in the script, one character’s monologue ends on a word that begins the other’s speech, which the two actors must say together. This choral effect drives the tension, and one can only imagine the rehearsals that it took to fine tune that exactitude. Akin is also superb at placement. Ofori and Renaud roam through the space with restless energy, but always, when one is talking, we are acutely mindful of where the other person is. In fact, both actors in their physicality look completely at home in the space. Alex Amini’s spot on costumes, and sound designer Christopher Stanton’s realistic background noises complete the stage picture.
Between the dazzling performances of Ofori and Renaud, and Ziegler’s astute script, Tom and Amber truly live and breathe. We understand the mess they are in and how they got there. Both their lives are changed forever.
Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company & Obsidian, Actually by Anna Ziegler, directed by Philip Akin, Greenwin Theatre, Meridian Arts Centre, Sept. 14 to 29, 2019.
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