I have often felt that Theatre Gargantua is the most under-appreciated company in Toronto. All their multi-disciplinary original plays are based on subjects ripped from today’s headlines or inspired by current zeitgeist. Writer Michael Gordon Spence creates a series of scenes that look at different aspects of the topic at hand, while the meticulous direction of Jacquie P.A. Thomas places those scenes within imaginative settings. Also embracing clever songs, intense physical movement, and laugh-out-loud comedy, The Wager is devised theatre at its finest.
The wellspring of The Wager is the current acceptance of misinformation, with a side trip into the strange things that people believe. The throughline of the play is the famous 1870 wager when British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace took up the challenge to prove that the earth is round. Flat-earther John Hampden had offered £500 as the wager, and the play does show how Wallace proved the round-earth truth. Hampden never accepted the independent referee’s decision. Incidentally, we all know about Darwin, but Wallace is considered the co-founder of the theory of evolution. It seems he independently came up with the concept of natural selection at the same time as Darwin, but Darwin got the fame.
The play is filled with a dizzying array of misinformation, each introduced by a projected title, be it anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, creationists, conspiracy theorists, fake newsers, alternative facts proponents, and outright lying politicians. While Spence’s script deals mostly with various aspects of belief, there is also a vignette on not being believed, featuring a woman reporting a sexual assault. And then there is the Dunning-Kruger Effect (look it up!). The takeaway from The Wager is, while some beliefs are just plain funny or silly, some are dangerous, and can affect the well-being of future generations. Belief in scientific truth and good old-fashioned common sense is on the decline, and we should be very afraid.
Thomas’ main directing motif is ladders of various sizes that become many different things during the performance. She also uses a game show and a panel discussion as forums for distilling ideas. My favourite is the German opera, which features John Hampden harassing Wallace and his wife Alice post wager. Some settings are simply fanciful, such as the parody on religious beliefs with talking birds discussing why they, as Gourd People, are better than their enemies, the Pumpkin People). Several of the topics are turned into clever original songs, with the entire cast playing a musical instrument. A stunning round-robin introduces all manner of beliefs, by simply adding a hat or a prop to rapidly change character. Slides and projections also play a role, including an eye-catching use of handheld screens.
The four-member cast is very talented. The men, Spence and François Macdonald, move effortlessly between song and text playing a multitude of characters. As good as they are, however, the women, Teiya Kasahara and Olivia Croft, are outstanding. Both women rivet the eye, whether Kasahara and her astonishing operatic voice that could fill a stadium, or Croft with her wonderfully expressive face and body. Kudos to Laird Macdonald for his evocative lighting and projections, Spence for his utilitarian set, Sarah Delignies for her clever costumes, Thomas Ryder Payne for his ambient sound, and Payne and the cast for the pointed original songs.
My guest for the evening said to me at the end of the performance, that every high school student should see this show because it deals with really important matters. Through an entertaining and imaginative stage presentation, The Wager gives us an informative and provocative theatre experience.
Theatre Gargantua, The Wager by Michael Gordon Spence, directed by Jacquie P.A. Thomas, Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, Nov. 14 to Nov. 30, 2019.