Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Walking Wounded Looking For the Walking Dead: Judith Thompson's White Biting Dog

In the late 90s, my acting coach, the exuberant David Switzer, described the characters in modern plays as "the walking wounded looking for the walking dead." It's not the perfect description of modern playwriting that he favoured in our Scene Study class, but it was often the best description he had for difficult plays. White Biting Dog, by the extraordinary Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, which debuted in 1984, was one of those plays that, after careful study, fit the Switzer definition.

A new production opened Thursday at the Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto and it was quite the emotional rollercoaster ride. It's the story of Cape Race, played very well by Mike Ross, a young lawyer tending to his sick father at home. Stressed out by his work and his broken marriage, Cape decides to end it all by jumping off a bridge. But just before he falls, the voice of a small, white dog is heard telling him to stop and that his mission to re-unite his divorced parents must be fulfilled. This throws Cape into a spiral of frustrated angst as he struggles with his own feelings surrounding his mother, gagging on the word itself, and reconciling with his ill father whose fears of dying and his regressive memories have driven him crazy. In the mix is the character of Pony, beautifully played by the engaging Micheala Washburn. Pony is an ex-ambulance driver looking for salvation in the big city. At first glance she is the Ying to Cape’s Yang, a happy yet doubtful young woman who comes looking for her dog. (Cape assumes it’s the white one.) But Cape is soon to discover that Pony is not the good omen he thought she was.

I've read and seen several Thompson plays over the years, and her style is to present a fragmented world in which the characters live and die. They often feel that they don't have much to live for except each other because they are damaged goods; the walking wounded looking for the walking dead. White Biting Dog has this desperate sense about it that only intensifies as the play unfolds. But the irony is how its humour disguises the desperation of the characters. That aspect was particularly strong in the first half of the opening night performance.The characters' outrageousness created a perfect facsimile of a dysfunctional family. Fiona Reid, who played Cape's mother, Lomia, was outstanding as her character uses false generosity in order to manipulate her son into giving her and boyfriend a safe-haven after her house burns down. She even brought along her main squeeze, Pascal, played by Gregory Prest, for good measure. Prest's choices were sound considering his character's so-called anti-social behaviour as the punk boyfriend.

Mike Ross and Fiona Reid (photo by Cylia von Tiedemann)
The set was creatively used doubling either as the interior of the house or the exterior of the bridge. Metal, tower-like columns served as doorways or seating areas depending on the imagined locations. The image of clouds covered the backdrop well, but it was underused. In fact, the whole set had an industrial look that was: virtually colourless with hues of grey, pale blue and black. To add to the gloomy atmosphere, the music was just a low groan that ebbed and flowed through the whole play. It was like listening eternally to one note while someone simply adjusts the volume. Considering the nature of White Biting Dog and the intensity of Thompson's work, the music was superfluous to the drama. It didn't effectively support anything of what the audience was feeling in the action.

director Nancy Palk
Speaking of action, director Nancy Palk carefully sets the pace and her staging encompasses the full stage including the aisles as entrances and exits. Part of the success of this production is the movement of the actors whose physical intensity with one-another only adds to their commitment on stage. Every actor, from Fiona Reid's flirtatious moves with the men to Michaela Washburn' s (Pony) truck-driver walk to Joseph Ziegler's (Glidden) weighty sluggishness had a bold dynamism. Clearly, Palk did her homework and let the cast gel organically during rehearsals. While some of Gregory Prest's moves seemed exaggerated, they were perfectly suitable to the awkwardness of the part of Pascal, the whispering punk who gives up on words as a sign of all that's wrong in the world.

White Biting Dog is truly the kind of modern play that best suits the Soulpepper Company. It is risky, intense and emotionally charged; an actor's play if you will. But I'm not sure of its value to an audience. What do we get out of such a difficult play? Even though the story is sympathetically resolved, I can't help but feel that some audience members are left cold by the play's dark absurdity. Perhaps I’m too close to the material having studied it years ago. Nevertheless, I think Thompson’s intention is to interpret life as she sees it: rough, vindictive, and full of aggression. Her characters don’t live in quiet desperation, they live only for now.

This caustic, yet humane, Soulpepper production vindicates Thompson's work while finding the beauty and grace of life in all its coarseness. White Biting Dog runs in repertory at Soulpepper until September 30.

- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and broadcaster.

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