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review

Daniel Brooks in Other People at Canadian Stage.Bronwen Sharp /Handout

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  • Title: Other People
  • Written and performed by: Daniel Brooks
  • Director: Brendan Healy
  • Company: Canadian Stage
  • Venue: Berkeley Street Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks and proof of vaccination required
  • Year: Runs to April 3, 2022

After someone tells you that they have a terminal diagnosis, you listen differently to whatever they have to say. The knowledge that you may never have another opportunity to take in their words simply raises the stakes, to put it in dramaturgical terms.

The director, playwright and actor Daniel Brooks is aware that he’s been imbued with strange and compelling new powers of speech since being diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer in 2018.

He’s observed how his cancer has got his grown-up daughters to call him back promptly and heightened conversations with friends and colleagues. Now, he’s harnessing it theatrically in his new solo show, Other People, at Canadian Stage.

“My days are numbered and I am spending them with you,” the Siminovitch Prize-winning theatre artist tells the audience early on – and you can sense ears perking up and ready to receive any wisdom he might have to impart.

Enlightenment does not come easy, however. Other People is a monologue that mostly chronicles 10 days that Brooks spent trying to find its “tingle” at a silent meditation retreat in Quebec, about a year after he had received his diagnosis.

This was, in fact, a bilingual silent-meditation retreat – a detail that could have been the basis for a throw-away joke, but which sends the bilingual-ish Brooks on a cascading a series of thoughts.

If people think differently in different languages, do people meditate differently in different languages? If he changes his thinking language to French, will it alter his attempts to not think?

I found this kind of intriguing as an idea, but Brooks turns on these thoughts quickly – indeed, he almost seems to spit them out of his mind in disgust. They’re simply not serious enough while on a journey he describes as wanting to “die well.”

This passing moment in Other People seemed to me representative of its form: A stream-of-consciousness monologue delivered by someone actively trying to shut down the stream of his consciousness.

Or, you might say, Brooks babbling about trying to tame the babbling brook of his mind.

Other People, as a title, immediately sends a theatregoer’s thoughts to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit and one of its lines, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” – usually translated as “Hell is other people.”

Brooks does, indeed, spend a lot of time thinking, or trying to not think, about the other people at his retreat – a source of dark humour in the show.

There is, for instance, Bell Jar, a man who Brooks describes as having the shape of sadness; and Red Crocs, whose snoring and violation of tiny rules drives Brooks to distraction.

Then there is Tony Small, an older man who is initially Brooks’ roommate – until the playwright gets him moved out by, as he puts it, playing the “cancer card.”

But there are other “other people” in Brooks’ thoughts as well – his parents, his brother, a lover only identified as Her. Indeed, there may only be “other people” if the teachings of the retreat are true and the self is an illusion.

Other People cuts back and forth between Brooks’ inner wrestling match at the retreat – and a loving Brooks living in the present moment on a stage in front of an audience. In these latter sections, the 63-year-old talks more directly about “this living dying thing” he’s experiencing, bringing in works of literature by Primo Levi, Imre Kertész and Leo Tolstoy to add heft to his ruminations.

While Brooks is one of the country’s top directors and has a body of work as a playwright, he’s not often acted in recent years. His last experiment in being himself on a stage (2018′s 40 Days and 40 Nights) rang false.

But Brooks channels an almost ecstatic energy on stage in Other People – and you can feel the influence of his long-term collaborator Daniel MacIvor as dramaturg on the compellingly theatrical shape of the show. (That’s a flipping of the script: Brooks has directed MacIvor’s acclaimed solos from House to Let’s Run Away.)

Director Brendan Healy’s production is often uplifting despite what initially seems like a forbidding black-on-black design by Kimberly Purtell. With her lighting, Purtell searches for and – like Brooks – constantly finds different shades and colours in the darkness.

While Brooks is himself wearing mostly black, he has a pair of cozy, blue woollen socks poking out of the bottom of his jeans that make a mockery of gloom; each is like a tongue stuck out at death.

He says he’s not battling cancer, he’s dancing with it – and he certainly is in this searching show, at least.