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Bingo, starring Dov Michaelson and Jane Spidell, is about the relationship between three male misfits and two friends often mistaken for lesbians. (Joanna Akyol/Factory Theatre)
Bingo, starring Dov Michaelson and Jane Spidell, is about the relationship between three male misfits and two friends often mistaken for lesbians. (Joanna Akyol/Factory Theatre)

Review

Bingo!: A brother-pleasing comedy Add to ...

  • Written by Daniel MacIvor
  • Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams
  • Starring John Beale, Sarah Dodd
  • Company Factory Theatre
  • City Toronto

“Bingo!”

This is what the Nova Scotian characters in Daniel MacIvor’s new crowd-pleasing comedy shout in unison when one of them runs to the washroom after having that one shot too many.

It’s the stomach-turning climax of a drinking game these three men and two women first developed in high school. Now, 30 years after graduating (or almost graduating), they are playing it again after a high school reunion, though the exact rules have become murky. Is the person who throws up the winner or the loser? And what’s the difference between winning and losing anyway?

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“Crowd-pleasing” is perhaps a loaded term. To be more exact, Bingo! is a brother-pleasing comedy. MacIvor, the Siminovitch Prize-winning playwright who rose to prominence with his dark and intense solo shows, wrote this nostalgia-suffused lark hoping it would appeal to a sibling who lives in a trailer park in Sydney, Cape Breton, a two-time cancer survivor who likes old westerns and drinking at the Legion but not the theatre.

Bingo!, which has had successful runs in Halifax and Winnipeg and now is facing Toronto crowds at Factory Theatre, introduces us to its three male misfits first, known by nicknames, at least tonight: Dookie (David Keeley), who has made it in real estate in Halifax and is the type to boast about lying to his wife; Heffer (Dov Mickelson), Dookie’s overeager sidekick who has stayed in this small, never-named town; and Nurk (John Beale), who has moved to Calgary and works in environmental engineering, which, his old friends tease him, seems to be a fancy way of saying waste-water treatment.

Next, we encounter shy Bitsy (Sarah Dodd) and butch Boots (Jane Spidell), two old friends who are often mistaken for lesbians. We meet them hugging the wall at the reunion, where Boots is imploring Bitsy not to dance alone, as, apparently in this town, that will make her appear crazy and desperate. “What if I am desperate?” Bitsy replies. “You’re the one who’s always telling me to be myself.” MacIvor has always written women voices well – and this double-act is more interesting than the three male stooges, more original in their idiosyncrasies, and less defined by their absent partners or ex-partners.

Nigel Shawn Williams, who is co-artistic director of Factory Theatre with Nina Lee Aquino, has directed this production of this low-key, Maritimer Big Chill – and, while it functions mostly, it’s all over the place in terms of characterization. Spidell doesn’t play a single line for laughs, and thus gets quite a few, while Mickelson and Keeley, zinging every zinger, actually have a lower batting percentage. Beale and Dodd, stalwarts of the MacIvor canon, live best within this world – finding a nice, semi-stylized middle ground that makes their oddballs seem genuine.

Are you the crowd that will be pleased by this play? You’ll get more out of Bingo!, the more you feel nostalgic for the late 1970s and early eighties, and the most if you know who Matt Minglewood is. The best scene is free of dialogue and features a drink-awakened Bitsy singing along to England Dan & John Ford Coley’s 1977 hit It’s Sad to Belong, playing on a cassette tape in an old boombox. The rest of the characters make fun of her, but then slowly join in: There’s a sweet spot here as an ironic singalong turns to an enthusiastic one and then a melancholy one, as the characters drop in and out as the lyrics begin to resonate to each of them in their own way.

The timing is a little off elsewhere, however. Too much of the dialogue is rushed or robotic – perhaps it simply needs a few more performances in front of an audience, though part of the opening night stiltedness has to fall on the director, the one-person crowd who is there to measure pleasure in rehearsal.

Also playing

Vitals, a new solo show written by Rosamund Small, takes you deep into the life of a Toronto paramedic on the edge. Here’s a fictional script that’s, refreshingly, not about how clever or poetic or insightful the playwright is, but an attempt to fully craft another voice full of verisimilitude, living in a part of our world we don’t pay enough attention to.

Katherine Cullen gives a sturdy study of the EMS worker in question, Anna. What makes the show a cut above, however, is director Mitchell Cushman’s production (Outside the March in association with Theatre Passe Muraille) set in and around a house in Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood. You don headphones to explore the emergency scene, guided by a dozen silent paramedics; sometimes you see Cullen performing and sometimes you simply hear her, for example, describing responding to the call of a drowned 10-month-old while you are handed wet baby clothes to hang on a line by one of her mute, mirror selves.

Anahita Dehbonehie’s art installation set is influenced by Punchdrunk, the U.K. company behind New York’s Sleep No More; you can poke through boxes of recovered items and read incident reports scattered about. Samuel Sholdice’s sound design is truly innovative – even when you can hear Cullen directly, it’s there to augment the experience. The audience rules for Vitals aren’t exactly consistent – and Cushman has directed a false ending or two into the show. But this exciting production is a real step forward for immersive theatre in this town.

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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