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Katherine Cullen and Diego Matamoros in a scene from A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.Dahlia Katz/Soulpepper

  • Title: A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney
  • Written by: Lucas Hnath
  • Director: Mitchell Cushman
  • Actors: Diego Matamoros, Anand Rajaram, Tony Ofori, Katherine Cullen
  • Company: Outside the March and Soulpepper
  • Venue: The Young Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to May 12

Critic’s Pick

It’s easy to forget these days that Walt Disney was once the name of an actual human being, not just a massive multibillion-dollar entertainment company with a theme park duking it out with Ron DeSantis in Florida and a streaming service all parents except Chrystia Freeland know is an essential service.

Then again, it is possible the Walt Disney Company, that squeakiest clean of American corporations, doesn’t mind people forgetting its founder, who died in 1966.

Because Walt Disney – animator, entrepreneur, fan of toothbrush moustaches – was not just an eccentric creative whose signature has confused generations of children trying to learn how to form Ds vs Gs. He was also, by some accounts, a bully who eagerly participated in anti-communist witch hunts and shamelessly flirted with fascism.

In his 2013 comedy about the last days of Disney, Lucas Hnath, the hot contemporary American playwright also behind just-closed Toronto critical hit Dana H., digs into the darker recesses of the mouse-man’s mind.

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney is currently getting a brilliantly acted, directed and designed Toronto premiere at Soulpepper in co-production with Outside the March.

The unusual conceit of Hnath’s show is that Walt Disney (Diego Matamoros) has gathered together his brother Roy Disney (Anand Rajaram), his son-in-law Ron Miller (Tony Ofori) and an unnamed daughter (Katherine Cullen) to perform a public reading of a film script.

“I’m Walt Disney,” Walt says at the start, holding up a stack of pages. “This is a screenplay I wrote. It’s about me.”

In the reading that follows, Walt speaks his own dialogue as well as all the descriptions and stage directions (“fade in,” “interior day,” “close-up,” etc.) in the script.

But Hnath is not, in fact, realistically depicting a table read. The lines the characters speak, for instance, do not sound anything like movie dialogue; they are strange, semi-formed sentences.

Walt, also, seems to be adding in stage directions in real time to speed past unpleasant scenes in his life. Sometimes he barks “cut to” in anger or mutters it in frustration and, when a hospital scene arrives, he presses a button that plays a recording of “cut to” to move the action forward as quickly as possible.

Despite all that, Walt – whom Matamoros incarnates in a bravura, barely hinged performance – is the only one who seems like he wants to be participating the reading. His daughter, by contrast, looks to be in the unhappiest place on Earth; Cullen’s comically sullen performance perfectly captures the humiliation of humouring a rich relative you can’t afford to speak truthfully toward.

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Diego Matamoros (playing Walt Disney), Katherine Cullen, Tony Ofori and Anand Rajaram perform in a scene where Disney gathers the group together to perform a public reading of a film script.Dahlia Katz/Soulpepper

The relationship between Walt and Roy – underplayed to great effect by Rajaram – is most central to the plot, as the former never hesitates to use the likeable latter as a scapegoat whenever he lands in hot water.

Controversies covered include the 1958 White Wilderness Disney nature documentary that showed lemmings leaping to their deaths in an act of collective suicide; it was CBC’s The Fifth Estate that, decades later, revealed that the little animals were in fact thrown off a cliff with the help of turntables.

Then, there is Walt’s mad attempt to build a city he could privately control in Florida, plans that were diluted after his death into the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), part of Walt Disney World. Hnath explores how his obsession with the world of tomorrow also led to him having his head being sawed off and cryogenically frozen after death.

That last bit, I was sorry to confirm on, is not fact-based.

It is perhaps hypocritical of Hnath to spend some of his play debunking myths about lemmings – and then double down on this legend of a decapitated Disney on ice waiting to be the world’s first reanimated animator. But he is, simply, that rare playwright who is as interested in being entertaining as being formally experimental.

That makes him a great match for the immersive theatre company Outside the March. The company makes theatregoing an event by treating every performance space as site-specific, even actual theatres.

In this case, the show’s design team has set up the main auditorium at Soulpepper as a movie theatre showing Steamboat Willie – and it’s behind the projection screen that the play actually takes place, with the audience seated around a small, circular platform.

That stage-on-a-stage rotates with an eerie hum – like a turntable throwing a human off a cliff to his demise in slow motion. (Sound designer Heidi Chan and lighting designer Nick Blais contribute to the eerie atmosphere – and the impressive set design is Anahita Dehbonehie’s.)

Mitchell Cushman directs with swagger here, his staging is full of images that are not just neat and clever but also engage with the play’s themes, like the telephone cord from a Mickey Mouse rotary phone that slowly strangles the set.

There’s a surprising amount of depth and detail to the production, given it was a late addition to the Soulpepper schedule, replacing an adaptation of A Doll’s House that had to be postponed. I suppose that makes this the second time that Hnath has stuck it to Henrik Ibsen, having previously written the cheeky sequel called A Doll’s House, Part Two that was his Broadway debut in 2017.

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