"The best thing about animals,” Thornton Wilder wrote in The Skin of Our Teeth, “is that they don’t talk much.”
Cape Breton-born playwright Daniel MacIvor, whose characters generally talk quite a bit, seems increasingly interested in animals and what they say to us without speaking.
The hero of The Best Brothers, MacIvor’s play currently on at Stratford Shakespeare Festival, isn’t either of the two men in it, but the off-stage Italian greyhound who brings them together.
Likewise, I, Animal, the playwright’s new trio of unlinked monologues getting its Toronto premiere at the SummerWorks festival, concerns characters whose strongest connections are with four-legged beasts.
It opens at a dog park, where Man in Scrubs (a slightly washed-out Antonio Cayonne) is yelling at the beloved pooch that came into his life after the death of his partner.
A black nurse from Halifax, the unnamed man doesn’t consider himself gay; gay men are from a different race and class than he is, he says.
He thinks of himself as queer, and, as he proceeds to tell us, this semantic distinction recently led him to violently lose his temper at a meeting of hospital workers looking to form an advocacy group.
Now he is seeking solace in the dog park, where such distinctions are irrelevant and a sudden outburst of anger won’t lead to a lawsuit from a doctor, just a quick tug on a leash.
Next up is Boy in Hoodie, who once hung with the popular crew at his high school, but became a social outcast after a picture of a dead cat appeared on his blog otherwise dedicated to funny pictures of felines. Stewart Legere gives a delicate, heartfelt portrait of this teenager who has an unusual sexual encounter with a cheerleader one night.
Finally, there’s Woman in Prada (Kathryn Maclellan) – and despite the disdain the other characters have aimed at fashionable and well-off before, she’s no devil. Recently divorced, she’s been on a holiday with a younger man that has gone awry. What she really wants, however, is a palomino horse.
These three humans are linked only by their affection for animals – and their uneasy understanding of their own animal sides. (They are also all staring up at the same moon, a clunky, cheesy conceit.)
I, Animal arrives at SummerWorks from Halifax’s Kazan Co-op, who premiered the play in their hometown in May. Richie Wilcox’s overly speedy production seems influenced by Daniel Brooks’s dark, intense productions of MacIvor’s monologues. But not every actor can command a stage with stillness the way MacIvor can, and the design is not seamless enough to conjure the necessary atmosphere.
Only Boy in Hoodie truly captivates, though he has a story that resonates at a higher frequency. The two other speeches contain some lovely observations about human nature, but they ultimately feel like MacIvor B-sides without a larger structure to the show.
These humans talk and talk and talk, but, in this case, they don’t say very much.
A less poetic and polished, but livelier new script at SummerWorks is Barrel Crank, which comes to the festival from the Suitcase in Point company in St. Catharines, Ont. It is also, in a way, about a human afraid of the fact that she is also an animal.
Written by the talented Erin Shields (If We Were Birds, Montparnasse) and based on studio improvisations, the play tells the story of Annie Edson Taylor (Amy Nostbakken) who, at the age of 63 in 1901, became the first person to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live.
In Shields’s sideshow-style retelling of the true tale, Annie – a strong-willed widow – had a sense of dignity that prevented her making money off her journey; she wanted to go on a lecture circuit of universities, but only found herself invited to dime museums and sideshows.
Though she intended the stunt to give her life meaning and means, instead her terrifying ride left her traumatized and with an overwhelming sense of shame. Her famous barrel was stolen by her manager and what money she made was spent on a private investigator trying to track it down. The moral, as TLC succinctly put it: Don’t go chasing waterfalls.
Despite some technical difficulties on opening night, Rose Plotek’s production has a few brilliant moments – the scene where Annie goes over the falls being particularly magically conjured by video and more old-fashioned stagecraft.
Deanna Jones, artistic director of Suitcase in Point, plays a number of roles with winning cheekiness, notably the cat who took Annie’s barrel for a test ride. Supporting as a series of landlords and lowlifes, Muoi Nene and Trent Pardy are truly funny.
That said, Nostbakken’s Annie is too enigmatic for her story to connect as more than historical oddity. And, in its current stage of development, the script is a bit of a Niagara sprawl. With some tightening up and deepening, however, it could be as captivating as Nik Wallenda’s recent tightrope walk across the famous Canadian cataracts.