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  • Category E
  • Written by Belinda Cornish
  • Directed by Rae Ellen Bodie
  • Starring Diana Bentley, Vivien Endicott-Douglas, Robert Persichini
  • At the Coal Mine in Toronto

rating

Category E’s plot is pretty clear from the moment the lights go up. Here are three humans, one cage, but only two cots. Someone won’t be staying very long.

Scared as a rabbit, young Millet (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) is the new arrival in this mysterious environment, clutching a pillow and blanket as she surveys the depressing scene.

Already there are the kindly, older Corcoran (Robert Persichini), who sits in a wheelchair doing a cryptic crossword, a bandage over one eye, the other eye a ghastly shade of red; and Filigree (Diana Bentley), also bandaged up in disturbing ways, lying on a cot sleeping next to a pile of pads filled with frightening drawings. As her new roommate quickly discovers, Filigree is better company asleep than awake.

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“Are we going to have to fight it out in the Thunderdome?” Millet asks, jokingly, in reference to the Mad Max film.

Category E, Edmonton playwright Belinda Cornish’s Sterling Award-winning 2015 play now getting its Toronto premiere at the Coal Mine, feels like many scripts that come out of Alberta – unpretentious in tone, and unafraid to engage with popular culture. How refreshing to have a character living in a dystopian environment who has actually seen a post-apocalyptic film or two – and not just the works of Samuel Beckett.

Fighting it out in front of a crowd Thunderdome-style is not in the cards for our three characters, however; they are too valuable to whoever runs this strange medical facility.

At one end of the corridor outside their cage, a green light signals the arrival of food – or something they must eat, anyway. At the other, a red light summons each of the humans off one by one for unexplained operations and experiments.

Radio advertisements for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals play between the scenes for the audience – and there’s the distinct implication that we’re spending our time not with the consumers of these products, but the animals that they are tested on.

One of the pleasures of Category E, however, is that while Cornish quickly immerses the audience in a convincing world, she doesn’t overwhelm us with too much information about it.

Nevertheless, it soon becomes clear that our three have ended up in this cage in different ways. Corcoran was involved in running the facility before he was in one of its wards. Filigree was born into the system – and, indeed, seems to have been bred for it. Millet grew up in what seems like a normal family, but failed a test called the Eye that, had she passed, would have allowed her a regular life.

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I’ve written “he” and “she,” but the characters only refer to each other as “it.” Wherever we are, there’s no gender – or gender has been deemed irrelevant. (In the first production by Edmonton’s “women-centric” indie company The Maggie Tree, the cast was all female.)

You can read Category E as taking place in a future where cloning and eugenics and gender fluidity have combined with unfettered capitalism to create a nightmare world, or you can see it as a dark Swiftian satire of present-day animal testing.

There are a few references in Category E to children’s literature that anthropomorphizes animals which suggest the latter interpretation. Meanwhile, director Rae Ellen Bodie’s production does the opposite – zoomorphizing these humans. Endicott-Douglas hops and scurries around like a beloved pet seeking affection as the tragically hopeful Millet. Bentley, meanwhile, barks and bites like a more feral or abused animal, rubbing her back up against the wall like a dog with an unscratchable itch.

The Coal Mine – the east-end storefront theatre that Bentley runs with Ted Dykstra – is a small theatre, but it doesn’t usually feel as cramped as it does here with two risers of audience members pressed right against the cage (designed by Anna Treusch). Even a few rows back, the sightlines are obscured when action happens on cots or on the floor. The semi-restricted views are frustrating at times, but do add to the claustrophobia of the play, in a way.

Cornish has categorized Category E as a “comedy of menace,” a term British playwright David Campton coined and that’s more frequently applied to Harold Pinter. There’s certainly a dash of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter here, not to mention a little bit of Beckett’s Endgame.

In its rarely dramatized subject matter, however, Cornish’s play is closer in point of view to anti-vivisectionist and vegetarian playwright Bernard Shaw, whose preface for The Doctor’s Dilemma is quoted in the program: “If a guinea pig may be sacrificed for the sake of the very little that can be learnt from it, shall not a man be sacrificed for the sake of the great deal that can be learnt from him?”

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Category E (coalminetheatre.com) continues to April 29.

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