The Canadian Scene boldly kicks off its 2022-23 season with Artistic Director Brendan Healy’s incisive production of this disturbing 2015 piece by Quebec provocateur Olivier Choinière.
Created in Montreal under the title “Public Enemy”, translated and adapted for this production by Bobby Theodore, the play takes place during two family dinners a year apart.
The general conceit, which is both shocking and fascinating, is that the family members talk to each other – just like people do in real life, but they’re usually not seen on stage. The viewer is challenged to make choices about how to handle this: do you lock yourself into a conversation or do you allow yourself to drift between them?
I found myself making the latter because Choinière’s point, I think, is exactly the tendency of contemporary conversation to be full of half-fabricated, half-baked arguments and opinions. Here is elderly mother Elizabeth (Rosemary Dunsmore) who gets annoyed that kids these days and radio presenters can’t speak properly (Theodore adapted the play to reflect local culture; CBC broadcasters Jelena Adzic and Matt Galloway are verified).
Here comes adult son James (Jonathan Goad) who dwells on 9/11 conspiracy theories and complains about the Bilderberg Group’s control over global finance. Her brother Daniel (Matthew Edison) initially appears to be the most rational of the bunch, patiently defending his mother’s extreme views of Quebec cardiologist turned child killer Guy Turcotte. Sister Melissa (Michelle Monteith) initially appears passive and reasonable, but reveals harshly punitive parenting tendencies as the play progresses.
It’s not just the adults at these parties: Melissa’s 11-year-old daughter Olivia (Maja Vujicic) and James’ teenage son Tyler (Finley Burke) are also in attendance, and an initial tableau invites us to be attentive to the opinion of Olivia exceeds what happens.
As prescribed in Choinière’s text, Julie Fox’s set is seated on a lathe, and after about the first 12 minutes of dialogue, the set rotates a third of the way round, and the same scene is replayed from the children’s point of view in the living room . The acting here is surprisingly nuanced as Burke’s Tyler shows flippant cruelty to his young cousin – making up a story about vermin in the furniture, for example – and Vujicic’s Olivia struggles to absorb it. Their older family bickers in the other room and sometimes attracts children, such as when James asks his son to name the capital of Ontario and makes fun of him when he can’t.
What a panoply of violence in this household: which we talk about, psychological and which are preparing under the surface. When it finally explodes, the trigger is money and inheritance, which takes the play in an interesting and unexpected direction deeper into family power dynamics.
Choinière embarks on an exploration of prejudice and class in the final section of the 90-minute drama, which is set a year later and introduces a new character, Daniel’s racist new girlfriend, Suzie (Amy Rutherford). One gets the impression that this part of the play may have hit hardest in Quebec where debates over immigration and the wearing of public religious symbols have been in the news for many years, but Rutherford plays the scene fearlessly and impeccably.
Ming Wong’s costumes play on the unease of the scene by signaling that Suzie is dragging Daniel down the class ladder: while he was the preppiest of the group in the first half, here he looks like a character from “The Sopranos”. It seems somewhat obvious in a play and production that otherwise very cleverly continues to challenge audiences to consider our assumptions about what makes people virtuous or unvirtuous, lucid or blind, victim or aggressor.
The overall production values are top-notch, adding to the growing sense of trepidation – the music in Richard Feren’s sound design coming from an uncomfortable place off stage, and his sound with the lighting of Kimberley Purtell evoking an urban wasteland just outside of this unhappy family’s immediate surroundings in several balcony scenes.
The precision of Healy’s production and the extraordinary ability of the cast company to meet the demands of the script (the overlap continues throughout) are impressive. But then I felt crestfallen that I enjoyed watching this show of doom. The tone remains ambiguous until the end, as the powerful Dunsmore matriarch lights a cigarette and watches into the night as her family bickers.
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