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review

The Antipodes explores the idea of valuing stories more than we do the real world and real people.Dahlia Katz/COAL MINE THEATRE

When I saw the world premiere of The Antipodes by Annie Baker off-Broadway in 2017, I couldn’t fully wrap my head around it.

This play by the (super) naturalistic Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright (The Flick, The Aliens) takes the audience inside a writer’s room for a fantasy television series about monsters.

It starts off as a razor-sharp satirical comedy about a macho, white-dominated culture and the stories it results in. But, at a certain point, the action takes an unexpected turn and the writer’s room turns monstrous itself in ways that both intrigued and baffled me.

Flash-forward five years to the Canadian premiere of The Antipodes at Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre (Critic’s Pick) – and Baker’s prescient play feels like it needs no decoding. In director Ted Dykstra’s excellent production, at least, it feels written directly in response to our watching-Netflix-while-the-world-burns culture of the past two years.

“There are dark times,” showrunner Sandy (Ari Cohen, spot-on in his chauvinism) tells his group of writers, desperately, as their deadline gets closer and closer and society collapses around them. “We need stories.”

Do we value stories more than we do the real world and real people?

The Antipodes explores this idea in two ways. First is in showing the masochistic and exhibitionist brainstorming sessions in Sandy’s room – a place in which he invites collaborators to check political correctness at the door (a.k.a. a safe space for white men).

Danny (Murray Furrow), one of Sandy’s regular collaborators, tells a tale about cheating on his wife and getting an STI in the process – framing himself as a hilarious anti-hero. Another brash writer named Dave (Joshua Browne) tells a traumatic story of suicide that he presents, perversely, as character building.

But when another Danny (a hypnotic Simon Bracken, no doubt soon-to-be Dora-nominated) tells an honest and personal story about a time he spent on a chicken farm, however, the room rejects the first real display of emotional vulnerability. Likewise, when it is the turn of Eleanor (Sarah Dodd), the one female writer in the room, to talk about losing her virginity, her collaborators look at her as they would an alien. There’s no value in this economy for a woman having a sweet and pleasurable sexual experience.

In director Ted Dykstra’s excellent production, The Antipodes feels written directly in response to our watching-Netflix-while-the-world-burns culture of the past two years.Dahlia Katz/COAL MINE THEATRE

Later, The Antipodes questions the value of storytelling as it shift gears into an absurd depicting of people spinning yarns while chaos swirls around them. What seemed like a metaphor in 2017, now merely seems an off-beat representation of reality – a Decameron for our era of decline.

Dykstra’s production in this small Toronto storefront theatre emphasizes both naturally and by design (top-notch set and lighting are by Nick Blais) the claustrophobia and myopia of a writer’s room: how trapped the writers in it are, and how their regular proclamations about how lucky they are to be there are the showbiz version of Stockholm syndrome.

A notable choice here is having Dodd play the part of Eleanor; she’s an older actress than the one who originated the role, making the character seem like someone who fought long and hard to be admitted to this secret society. That makes the play less readable as a riff on Baker’s own experiences as a younger woman in the TV world before #MeToo, and more of an ensemble piece set in the present. (That ensemble is a fine one that also includes Colin A. Doyle, Joseph Zita, Nadeem Phillip and a funny Kelsey Verzotti as the showrunner’s assistant.)

There was only one thing that baffled me about The Antipodes this time around: Why, for the stacks of boxes of sparkling water the play requires, did Dykstra and Blais chose strawberry-flavoured Bubly – the very worst of that brand’s flavours? The TV world can’t be that monstrous.

One of my favourite things about Richard Rose’s tenure as artistic director at the Tarragon Theatre – which is over now, but lingers because of pandemic-delayed programming – is that, about once a season, he put on a genuinely outside-the-box new play that challenged and often alienated a chunk of his audience.

Orphan Song, a new play by Sean Dixon (A God In Need of Help) now finally having it overdue premiere at Tarragon under the direction of Rose, falls into that category. It is set in prehistoric times – 40,027 BCE to be exact – and, catching up with it a few days after opening night, I witnessed a number of spectators disappear at intermission.

A Homo sapiens couple named Mo (Sophie Goulet) and Gorse (Beau Dixon) have lost a child, and shortly afterward they stumble upon a group of dying Neanderthals (they call them “pipers”) and one little living one next to a large body of water.

In a sort of reversal of the plot of 1980 novel The Clan of the Cave Bear, the early humans decide to take care of this Neanderthal child – a decision that leads them to be rejected by their cave-dwelling community. Mo and Gorse end up wandering the land amid dangerous beasts with the child and Gorse’s mother Gran (Terry Tweed) in tow.

Dixon’s prehistoric world is depicted in a number of theatrical ways. Chicky, as Mo dubs her adopted child, is a large white cloth-like puppet, operated by the show’s puppetry designer Kaitlin Morrow. The rest of the Neanderthals and other wild beasts, great and small, are also depicted through puppetry – and all speak in tweets and whistles voiced by the show’s sizeable ensemble.

As for the Homo sapiens, humans at the time, apparently, knew about 200 words and could only count to five – information that Dixon takes a little too literally in the crafting of his dialogue.

The clipped English sentences with limited tense variation in which Mo and Gorse speak suggest they are constantly struggling to express themselves, as if they are attempting to speak in a second language, rather than that they have a limited range of understanding and expression.

That this is the case becomes clear when Dixon breaks this convention and allows his early humans to talk fluently in a couple of monologues. Their palpable frustration in communicating in the rest of the show is frustrating for the audience as well; the language is jarring to listen to for an extended period, and is not a fun puzzle to figure out as is, for example, the limited vocabulary of Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth.

Other things that works against the show are the uneven tone of Rose’s production (which, at odd moments, pokes holes in its own pretensions), and the usual difficulties you find in attempts to stage journeys in a theatre.

In his playwright’s note, Dixon writes about forming a family through adoption with his wife and daughter. Orphan Song’s strongest moments show the heartbreak of Mo as Chicky seems to reject her, and Gorse’s growing love for his daughter. There’s nothing to complain about in Goulet and Beau Dixon’s emotionally grounded work, but it’s hard to recommend a play you leave wishing had been in gibberish or mime.

The Antipodes continues to May 15 at the Coal Mine in Toronto; Orphan Song continues to April 24 at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. Masks and proof of vaccination currently required at both theatres.

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