Written by: Anna Ziegler
Director: Philip Akin
Actors: Tony Ofori, Claire Renaud
Companies: Harold Green Jewish Theatre, Obsidian Theatre
Venue: Meridian Arts Centre
Year: Runs to Sunday, Sept. 29
The theatre has been quick to bring the #MeToo conversation to the stage. In Canada, we’ve seen a string of provocative new plays dealing with sexual harassment and abuse, including at least two – Ellie Moon’s Asking For It and Amy Lee Lavoie’s C’mon, Angie! – that dive headlong into the thorny issue of consent.
Now we get to hear a voice from south of the border. American playwright Anna Ziegler’s gripping 2017 drama, Actually, opening a new season for the Harold Green Jewish Theatre, is set at Princeton and concerns a female student’s allegations of rape against a male classmate. And Ziegler doesn’t make it easy on her audience’s liberal sympathies: the accuser is Jewish and the accused is black.
Thomas Anthony (Tony Ofori), a gifted pianist from an underprivileged background, is at the Ivy League college on a music scholarship. Amber Cohen (Claire Renaud) is an English major and, despite her habitual self-deprecation, probably a pretty good squash player, too. They’re both smart, funny, self-aware; we like them from the get-go. That’s why it’s such a shock to learn that Amber is claiming Tom raped her on their second date.
The play opens at the start of that date and, in Philip Akin’s splendidly artful production, as the pair stand outside a keg party, you can hear some music pulsing almost subliminally from within. It’s Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy.
Ziegler’s play is so brilliantly calibrated that, by the end of its 90 minutes, you’ll have flip-flopped more times than a politician as you try to decide who the bad guy really is here. It’s Tom, isn’t it? Or no, maybe it’s Amber? Or Tom?
Perhaps the panel convened by the university to judge the case is the true villain. Amber suspects that, no matter what she and Tom say to them, “they’ll hear what they want to hear.” And then there are those other bad guys, Jagermeister and Samuel Adams and Jell-O shots. Drunkenness is a major player in the incident and Ziegler’s hellish picture of freshman life, in which anxiety is medicated by massive qualities of booze, makes you wonder if the most efficacious move would be to ban alcohol from college campuses.
Ziegler’s real focus, however, is on the emotional baggage that both Tom and Amber have brought to Princeton. Sure, Tom is a horndog with an aggressive streak and a history of inappropriate sexual behaviour, but he also feels the pressure of having to make up for his father’s failure and the burden of a skin colour that condemns him to racist preconceptions.
Amber, meanwhile, comes off at first as a neurotic motormouth and a bit of a flake (she can’t decide if her favourite book is Gone Girl or The Iliad), but she proves to have a keen intellect as well as a debilitating sense that she is invisible to others.
Ziegler doles out these details skilfully, in tiny portions, as Amber and Tom directly address the audience. The playwright, best known for Photograph 51, about the uncredited DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin, appreciates underdogs. With Tom and Amber, she has given us two of them, and delineated both with such empathy that we feel less outraged than sad by how their budding relationship has been destroyed by one night of sodden stupidity.
This excellent production is a joint venture with Obsidian Theatre, where director Akin is stepping down after 13 years at the helm. In that time, he’s been a spotter of promising young talent and Actually is no exception. Ofori is a dynamic Tom, conveying both his alpha-male charm and the fragility underneath. Renaud’s slight, lemur-eyed Amber is charmingly scatty, until her glibness gives way to genuine pain.
Finally, there are no bad guys in Actually, just bad choices and two damaged young people left to face the consequences.
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