Title: The Jungle
Written by: Anthony MacMahon and Thomas McKechnie
Director: Guillermo Verdecchia
Actors: Shannon Currie and Matthew Gin
Company and Venue: Tarragon Theatre
Year: Runs to Sunday, Nov. 3
There are no living, wild animals in Anthony MacMahon and Thomas McKechnie’s The Jungle, just a fabulous beast called capitalism. Get on its wrong side and it will slowly tear you to pieces. Learn how to harness it and you could succeed – although likely at the expense of others.
By turns darkly comic, semi-tragic and bitingly cynical, MacMahon and McKechnie’s engrossing new play, premiering in the Tarragon Theatre’s Extraspace, is part love story, part economics lesson. It’s the tale of Jack (Matthew Gin) and Veronyka (Shannon Currie), a working-class Toronto couple struggling to get by in the precarious gig economy. He’s a second-generation Chinese-Canadian who spends 16-hour shifts at the wheel of a cab. She’s an illegal immigrant from Moldova who’s working in a factory by day and waiting tables in a downtown pub at night.
The pair fall in love and somehow, between their brutal schedules, manage to marry and settle down in his apartment in Etobicoke. He’d like kids, but she says they can’t afford them – she’s already supporting family back in Moldova. And his parents, in Markham, aren’t well-off either, scraping by on his aging father’s own cab driving and taking on debts they can’t pay off.
I say there are no living animals in this jungle, but there’s plenty of dead meat. At one point, Veronyka accidentally gives Jack and her in-laws food poisoning with some tainted poultry she bought for cheap in Chinatown. And later, she ditches waitressing to apprentice at a boutique butcher shop catering to hipsters in Kensington Market. The meat theme is a sly reference to the play’s inspiration, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking classic The Jungle, a novel that revealed the wretched lives of working-class immigrants exploited by Chicago’s meat-packing industry.
Although the grotesque horrors of that book may be a world away from 21st century Toronto, MacMahon and McKechnie suggest that both the ruthless capitalism Sinclair exposed and the socialist solutions he espoused haven’t lost their currency. Throughout the play, actors Currie and Gin slip out of their characters to deliver a lively lecture on Marxist economics – complete with whiteboard diagrams on Shannon Lea Doyle’s grungy apartment-cum-classroom set – showing how the theories of Das Kapital continue to apply to the present day.
Certainly MacMahon, who did an unsatisfying update of Orwell’s Animal Farm for Soulpepper two seasons ago, is much more successful in making Sinclair’s work speak to us today. In fact, the play eventually leaves Sinclair and ventures into Orwellian satire. Veronyka, once the desperate immigrant, later becomes the successful small-business owner who complains of the handouts being given to Syrian refugees. Jack, meanwhile, goes from a shiny-eyed idealist who volunteers his time on a local Liberal campaign to a dirty player in the political game.
There were times when this show took me way, way back to The Noam Chomsky Lectures, a piece of classic Canadian political theatre from the 1990s, and it’s no surprise that one of its authors, Guillermo Verdecchia, is the director here. He gives The Jungle a potent staging that makes the most of its two winning actors.
Gin is delightful as Jack, who glows with fresh-faced enthusiasm despite all those punishing taxi shifts. Currie provides the contrast as a wry, wary Veronyka. The actress looks and sounds so convincingly Eastern European that it’s a shock when she first reverts to her own Canadian accent for the lectures.
McKechnie and MacMahon aren’t necessarily recommending Marxist ideology. They remind us that Veronyka and Jack’s parents come from countries where Marx’s theories were twisted into totalitarianism. And remember, MacMahon adapted Animal Farm, that fable about communism-turned-fascism. But that doesn’t mean Marx the economist didn’t get it right.
Whether you agree with them or not, The Jungle’s frank portrayal of today’s working poor can only serve as a reminder that a system where 1 per cent of the world’s population holds the bulk of the world’s wealth is a system that’s gone horribly wrong.
The Jungle continues to Nov. 3. (tarragontheatre.com)