- Title: Casimir and Caroline
- Written by: Odon von Horvath
- Director: Paolo Santalucia
- Actors: Hallie Seline, Alexander Crowther, James Graham, Michael Ayres
- Company: The Howland Company
- Venue: Streetcar Crowsnest
- City: Toronto
- Year: To Feb. 9
If you miss the early days of Soulpepper Theatre Company, when it regularly staged lesser-known international classics in Toronto, get over to the Streetcar Crowsnest before Feb. 9 and introduce yourself to an exuberant young ensemble called the Howland Company.
Their new take on Casimir and Caroline, a 1932 romantic tragicomedy by the Austro-Hungarian playwright Odon von Horvath, is fascinating mixture of delight and doom.
Von Horvath’s play about a young engaged couple breaking up amid a backdrop of economic and political instability is one of the most frequently staged plays in the German-speaking world since the great recession of 2008, according to University of Toronto professor Holger Syme.
In this adaptation of a translation by Syme, created by Syme, director Paolo Santalucia and the actors, the action of the play has explicitly been moved to our times, with almost aggressively up-to-the-minute references to Lizzo and Disney+ - and the characters it both satirizes and sympathizes with are mainly millennials trying to get a foothold in the workplace.
Instead of taking place at Oktoberfest in Munich as the original does, this version takes place at an office party that, in Ken MacKenzie’s fun and whimsical Wes Anderson meets Queen West design, seems to be on an outdoor terrace in one of the generic towers that has colonized downtown Toronto.
Casimir (Alexander Crowther) has just been laid off from this unnamed company holding the party, where he worked as a driver for a crass manager named Rankin (James Graham).
He’s now sullenly attending as the plus one of his fiancée, Caroline (Hallie Seline) - but, emasculated by his loss of employment, Casimir projects his own dislike of himself onto his partner and causes a scene.
For the rest of the evening, the two keep almost reconciling but always stop short due to poor communication or pride. The travails of these titular lovers weave in and out of an evening full of drunken networking by richly drawn, semi-likeable characters.
There’s Sanders (Michael Ayres), the sheepish head of the fashion department, who cowardly flirts with Caroline only when other more powerful men at the company who have their eye on her aren’t around.
Then there’s the double-act of Ellie (Shruti Kothari), whose high school Mean Girl persona has effortlessly transferred to the corporate world, and Mary (Veronica Hortiguela), an HR professional who desperately wants everyone to like her.
On the periphery, we also meet a couple of Casimir’s friends who have dropped out of respectable work altogether: A self-destructive criminal named Frank (Cameron Laurie) and his girlfriend, Liz (the wonderful Caroline Toal), whom he treats cruelly.
The tone of this enjoyably ambling production – particularly when it comes to Crowther’s well-drawn lovelorn, self-pity as Casimir – will remind theatregoers of Anton Chekhov, if his aesthetic was more urban and he had a taste for contemporary satire.
This adaptation gets most topical in a #MeToo subplot related to the growing rumours and then public revelation that Rankin has made a spreadsheet ranking the women in the office by how hot they are.
Santalucia has done a very good job of getting the actors to create stylized, entertaining performances that are nevertheless tethered to a recognizable humanity. You’re always aware of how ridiculous these characters are, but somehow they still, in millennial-speak, give you the feels.
Von Horvath was a young playwright who never got to be an old one. He wrote amid the decline of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism and saw the world he lived in with a clear eye, leading to an exile in Paris following the annexation of Austria in 1938. He died later that year struck on the head by a falling tree branch._
Despite the unsettling timeliness of von Horvath’s plays, they are rarely done in the English-speaking world. Apparently, the peculiarity of his language – Syme describes his dialogue as “often disrupted by silences… full of strange phrases and clichés” in a program note – makes it difficult to translate.
I can’t claim to know what the original Casimir and Caroline is like – a non-adapted English translation is hard to find - but the tone of Santalucia’s production did strike me as similar to the work of the playwrights I’ve seen in Germany, done in German.
While it features solid work from regular Howland members like Seline, the most memorable performances come from a few actors making their debut with the company: Ayres, with his brilliant blend of charisma, cravenness and melancholy as Sanders; and Toal, who somehow can do broad strokes and subtlety at the same time and paints a complicated picture of a woman standing by an abusive partner.
As Rankin, Graham is strongest in the few moments where the intensely unlikable character shows his vulnerability; I loved the sadness with which he says, “I’m not legally allowed to say I’m sorry”. But he needs to work on that fine line between playing an off-putting character and giving off-putting performance.
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