After last month’s entertaining but anodyne CN Tower Show, Theatre Passe Muraille has flagged down a more controversial vehicle for its documentary-theatre approach with Fare Game: Life in Toronto’s Taxis. This hour-long multimedia show – part of TPM’s fall season of Toronto-focused projects – examines the current unrest in the city’s taxicab industry, while at the same time capturing the through-the-windshield viewpoints of its drivers. As a piece of local journalism it’s solid – like a good, well-researched magazine article. As theatre, however, it’s a bit of a bumpy ride.
You can’t fault the show’s timeliness: It happens to coincide with the long-awaited review under way at City Hall to address perceived injustices in the taxi-licensing system. Fare Game’s collective of creator-performers, Marjorie Chan, Ruth Madoc-Jones and Alex Williams, use that review to drive the piece.
Specifically, they highlight the ordeal of Khalil Talke, the cabbie who was attacked and nearly killed by a knife-wielding passenger on Valentine’s Day, 2011. Talke, a father of four, lost his operator’s permit as a result of being injured and unable to drive his cab – a situation that helped galvanize the push for reform.
Talke is originally from Eritrea, and the show reveals how the city’s taxi drivers have tended to be new immigrants right from the beginning. Toronto’s very first cabbie was Thornton Blackburn, an escaped slave from Kentucky who found refuge in Upper Canada and started a hackney-cab service in 1837. In the postwar era, when anti-Semitism was rife among employers, many Jewish immigrants ended up driving taxis. Later, the ranks were filled by Greek and Italian newcomers, and today the majority behind the wheel hail from Africa and the Middle East.
Fare Game looks at both the accusations of racism in the city’s taxi bylaws and some very clear racist attitudes within the business. It also touches on the low pay, and the financial and personal risks of taxi driving. We’re told that it’s the most dangerous occupation in North America, and that taxi drivers are twice as likely as police officers to be murdered on the job. While no statistics are presented to back that claim, Talke’s chillingly detailed description of his nighttime attack is a reminder of how vulnerable a cabbie is.
Talke and many of the other drivers and industry people interviewed by the collective appear onscreen in extensive video segments that make up a large part of the show. Letting them speak for themselves was probably a wise choice, given that as performers, the show’s creators are less than compelling. While all three are personable narrators, none of them lists “actor” as the first skill on his or her resumé, and there’s a good reason for that. Their efforts to recreate their back-seat exchanges with various drivers tend to be colourless and flat.
The one exception is Williams’s capable impersonation of a gruff veteran who embodies the old romantic image of the cab driver as a wisecracking tough guy. This hard-boiled hack describes fleet owners, drivers and customers as pimps, whores and tricks, respectively, while a clip of the cinema’s most infamous cabbie, Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, flashes on the upstage screen.
Williams, a filmmaker, shot the interviews and designed the show’s video component, which also includes footage from the City Hall hearings and impressionistic images of Toronto’s streets. He, Chan and Madoc-Jones perform in front of the screen on a simple set by Trevor Schwellnus made up of stacked boxes and piles of car tires. Although both Madoc-Jones and Chan are directors, no one is credited with directing the show, and its live portion is shapeless and uninspired. At worst, it’s self-consciously “theatrical,” with movement sequences verging on unintended parody.
But the content of the show is informative, and audiences will come away with a new appreciation of an often-maligned occupation. If anything, we’d like to know more about the lives of the drivers we meet here. The city’s taxicab-industry review is due to release a final report this coming spring, which might be a good time to revisit Fare Game and make it better than just fair.