With Factory Theatre’s fall season scuttled by board members who decided that getting rid of artistic director Ken Gass was of greater importance than getting Michel Marc Bouchard’s latest play up on the boards, there’s room for a theatregoer to explore companies that are farther off the beaten path in Toronto.
Red One Theatre Collective is one that I’ve followed around town a little, as it roved from warehouses in the east end to warehouses in the west end, presenting contemporary plays from the U.S. and U.K.
Eigengrau is the first Red One production I’ve seen staged in an old-fashioned theatre – a cabaret space, actually – and perhaps that’s why it’s the most successful I’ve attended.
The title of British playwright Penelope Skinner’s 2010 bitter comedy is the German word for “intrinsic grey,” which is, Wikipedia tells me, “the colour seen by the eye in perfect darkness.” (Frankly, it’s a bit obnoxious to use a title on your play that needs to be Googled to be understood.)
With the help of the new theatrical device of online classifieds, Skinner has here assembled a diverse foursome of Londoners near the older end of Generation Y. Cassie (Claire Armstong) is an overworked and underpaid feminist campaigner against violent pornography who, thanks to the whims of Gumtree – a U.K. cousin of Craigslist – ends up sharing quarters with a bubbly believer in fairies and love at first sight named Rose (Helen Johns). “I can’t believe I’m living with a real, live feminist,” Rose squeals.
Rose has been hooking up with Mark (Jeff Irving), who works in marketing and is the kind of fellow who casually jokes about pushing old ladies in front of the Tube at rush hour. He has his own odd-couple flatmate, an unemployed and oversensitive care worker named Tim (Kristian Bruun), whose monologues to his recently deceased grandmother bookend the show.
Soon enough, Mark is dodging Rose’s calls, while Rose is dodging debt collectors, and both Tim and Cassie have fallen for their roommate’s romantic interests – Tim blindly, and Cassie only reluctantly after an ardent Mark swears he’s undergone a feminist conversion. He appears in a pro-choice T-shirt: “No ovaries; no opinions.”
In the U.K., Skinner was given a couple of “most promising playwright” awards in 2011, and that seems about right. The relationship stuff covers well-trod territory, but, in the philosophical and political spheres, Skinner takes her characters to provocative places that perhaps only a female playwright could. Cassie’s feminism is compared and contrasted with Rose’s numerology, for instance, as different, post-God approaches to finding explanations for why life is as lousy or lovely as it is. Is it patriarchy or patterns in the stars?
Equally interesting is Mark, a seemingly unredeemable womanizer who ends up earning our sympathy. He’s the only one who makes it to the end of the play repercussion free, yet he’s also the play’s tragic figure. It’s a perfect role for the often-miscast Irving, whose big, charming smile carries a creepy edge. Here, he keeps a poker-face throughout that keeps you guessing as to Mark’s motivations.
The best reason to see Red One’s production of Eigengrau, however, is the wonderful, centred performance from Armstrong. Her Cassie is a complex mix of confidence and barely hidden yearning. Watching her lower her defences and open up to the worst possible person is heartbreaking.
Director David Tompa’s production is clunky – there are many musical interludes (Adele; Kate Nash; the obvious song by Joy Division) while the actors fumble around in the dark changing backdrops. As with his production of Proof last year, Tompa has yet to figure out how to make economy a virtue.
Though, it should be noted, the company is offering $3 shots of whisky throughout the play for any theatregoers who aren’t driving or on the clock. Perhaps that’s something Factory Theatre should consider as it tries to entice alienated patrons back this winter.