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A scene from The Summoned. (Cylla von Tiedemann)
A scene from The Summoned. (Cylla von Tiedemann)

Review

The Summoned: File this entertainingly weird Tarragon Theatre show under r/Woahdude Add to ...

  • Title The Summoned
  • Written by Fabrizio Filippo
  • Directed by Richard Rose Starring Fabrizio Filippo, Maggie Huculak, Tony Nappo
  • Venue Tarragon Theatre
  • City Toronto
  • Year 2016
  • Runs Until Sunday, May 29, 2016

Can any Globe and Mail readers out there help get this theatre review trending on Reddit?

The Summoned – Fabrizio Filippo’s wonderfully weird new science-fiction comedy framed as a TED Talk – deserves to find an appreciative audience. But I think that audience is more likely to be found on r/Geek or r/technology than among the folks who usually frequent Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre (who I suspect would be more likely to downvote this show than upvote it).

The four stars atop this review are for the redditors out there, or anyone who has an appreciation of geek culture at least.

The Summoned begins as The Big Chill meets Steve Jobs (the Aaron Sorkin biopic) – but then gradually heads in more of an Ex Machina direction. Reclusive tech billionaire and online security pioneer Kahn has died – and six men and women have gathered (or been gathered) at a budget hotel near the Toronto airport for the reading of his will.

Aldous (Fabrizio Filippo), a young man seemingly on the spectrum and likely Kahn’s son, is our narrator, presenting the play as a TED Talk entitled “If It Can Be Done, It Will Be Done” in front of a giant screen filled with purposefully cheesy projections (designed by Kurt Firla). He introduces the rest of the characters as asides – and slips in and out of scenes that fly by almost as quickly as slides in a presentation.

Aldous’s mother is Annie Mann (Maggie Huculak) – a pioneer programmer who now runs this hotel, secretly an off-the-grid halfway house that has played host to everyone from Salman Rushdie to Edward Snowden over the years.

Annie was “the Woz to Kahn’s Steve Jobs”, as one character puts it – but she’s been dragged to the trash bin of tech history.

Others arriving for the will reading are Kahn’s brusque infrastructure guy Gary (John Bourgeois); his lascivious lawyer Laura (Kelli Fox); a paranoid security expert named Quentin (Tony Nappo); and a flight attendant named Isla (Rachel Cairns), who is Aldous’s girlfriend and even freakier than he is.

Billed as a “technological thriller”, The Summoned seemed to me more in the vein of the satirical sci-fi of Douglas Adams – full of smart, wry observations more likely to prompt an appreciative smile than a belly laugh, such as “The Internet is the best thing to ever happen to the exclamation point.”

The twists and turns of Filippo’s plot are very well-crafted – each revelation, perhaps especially the one you can see coming, surprised me in one way or another. It all comes together brilliantly.

Performing at the centre of his own play, Filippo – who you may know from the TV show Billable Hours or the movie Waydowntown – sets the quirky, removed tone as Aldous. Two other actors really stand out. Nappo, cast against type, is reliably hilarious, spouting tech jargon while pulling flip-phones out of his pocket, using them for a second, and then snapping them in two.

Then, there’s Cairns as Isla, who is extremely intelligent, but is constantly trolling the men around her by pretending to be dumb. She observes all the action onstage with detached amusement – and Cairns gives her the physicality of an insane yoga instructor, pulling off a few moments of dazzling slapstick.

Okay, but what about the non-geek theatregoers out there, those of you more familiar with Woyzeck than Wozniak? Well, if you’re looking to be moved by a play, or care about any of its characters, you’ll probably be disappointed by The Summoned (despite Huculak’s best attempts to ground the play in her psychological reality). Likewise, if you’re interested in mature, nuanced depictions of sexual relationships, you’ll have to seek elsewhere.

But if you enjoy theatre that avoids obvious rhythms and is comfortable with uncomfortable silences then you’ll find much to enjoy in Richard Rose’s staging.

Rose restaged a production of German director Thomas Ostermeier’s earlier this season (An Enemy of the People), and it seems to have inspired a little theatrical anarchism in him. He lets his actors behave in their own bizarre ways on stage – often drawing focus away from whatever is the main moment of a scene. It’s a complex style of staging that fits in thematically here, mimicking as it does the Internet and its endless attention-span-testing distractions.

My favourite part was a baffling scene that took place after the characters all took a few whiffs of an air freshener that, we later learn, contains nanotechnology. Apparently, tiny, inhalable robots can also get you high – and for a long stretch it seemed as if the entire play were collapsing as Fox burst into giggles, Bourgeois erupted into tears, and Huculak started to grind her hips.

There’s plenty that many will find to complain about in The Summoned but – love it or hate it – you won’t find a more original production on in Toronto right now.

The Summoned runs to May 29 at Tarragon Theatre’s Mainspace.

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