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Daniela Vlaskalic and Shawn Dolye in The Orange Dot

John Lauener Photography

2 out of 4 stars

Title
The Orange Dot
Written by
Sean Dixon
Directed by
Vikki Anderson
Actors
Daniela Vlaskalic, Shawn Doyle
Company
Streetcar Crowsnest
City
Toronto

Sean Dixon's The Orange Dot, a companion piece to his A God in Need of Help, could also be titled "A Goddess in Need of Help." No, wait: better call it "A Play in Need of Help."

Dixon's earlier work, which premiered at Tarragon Theatre, was a riveting historical mystery that went on to be shortlisted for a Governor-General's Award. His new one, produced by Theatrefront at Crow's Theatre, is a patchy contemporary comedy/drama that starts off strong but then takes a nosedive into surreal absurdity and gratuitous gore.

The orange dot referred to is the spray-painted mark on the bark of a tree, indicating that it needs to be removed. The tree in this case is a silver maple, apparently riddled with termites, in Toronto's Roncesvalles neighbourhood. Natalie (Daniela Vlaskalic) and Joe (Shawn Doyle) are a couple of workers in the city's urban forestry department who've arrived to help with the job.

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As the two wait for the equipment truck – stuck on Highway 401 in morning rush-hour traffic – they pass the time kibitzing and playing with their smartphones. It turns out Natalie, a.k.a. Nate, has recently lost her mother – a nurse and single mom – and is still in mourning. It's left her in a fragile state and made her more than usually sensitive about the fate of the infested tree.

Joe, meanwhile – who is otherwise as ordinary as his name – has become singularly obsessed with the artifact-smashing activities of the Islamic State and with a bunch of local young men – Presbyterians from Scarborough – who've joined the terrorist organization.

The pair begin by discussing art and religion (the themes of A God in Need of Help), before veering into the unsafe territory of masculine and feminine traits, when their hitherto lighthearted banter starts to get ugly.

Up till then, we've found Joe to be rather endearing, especially when he admits to a man crush on George Clooney and a boyhood fondness for Wonder Woman. ("Booty shorts and an invisible plane can hold a boy's interest," he says in his defence.) We have soft spot for Nate, too – when she isn't indulging in wild flights of imagination, she's taking surreptitious selfies under the maple and posting them to her Twitter account: @treebabe2. ("Treebabe1 was taken," she explains.) Both are single and lonely and, in a different play, their rapport would doubtless blossom into romance.

Instead, Dixon has decided to turn it into a battle of the sexes. Joe begins to reveal an aggressive, misogynistic streak and a taste for online porn. Nate is a man-hater herself and seems to have become possessed by a vengeful goddess dwelling in the threatened tree. In what can only be rationally explained as a full-blown psychotic breakdown, she starts to act like the high priestess of said goddess, brandishing an ancient spearhead she's found concealed in the tree. That's when things get bloody.

That's also when they get bloody disappointing. We expect better from veteran playwright Dixon and we had higher hopes for the characters he's created, which Vlaskalic and Doyle play so well. The pair don't have to connect romantically, but it would be nice to see them help one another to reach a better understanding of the opposite sex. In other words, it would be nice to see a Trudeau play. Instead, we get a Trump one: resentful, sexist male clashes with enraged feminist.

This grotesque twist is unfair to poor Natalie and Joe, who earlier in the play seem like the kind of people you'd want to have a beer with. Vlaskalic, best known for co-creating and co-starring in that well-toured thriller The Drowning Girls, gives Nate an awkward, slightly goofy charm. Familiar TV face Doyle lends Joe his Newfoundland accent and a gruff amiability. And how are we supposed to hate a well-meaning guy who buys a cappuccino for his sad workmate in the hope it will cheer her up?

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Dixon's dialogue is amusing, his digs at our distracted digital culture are apt and he adroitly threads a goddess leitmotiv throughout the play. But his characters' transformations seem to reflect a playwright's agenda rather than growing naturally out of their personalities.

Director Vikki Anderson's staging employs a few eerie touches to suggest either supernatural forces at play, or that Nate is cracking up. But they hardly prepare us for the sudden shift into weirdness. The most striking aspect of her production is set designer Joanna Yu's silver maple. Perhaps taking her cue from Joe's talk about the Daesh destroying cultural institutions, Yu has turned the tree into an homage to the Royal Ontario Museum. It consists of a realistic-looking gnarled trunk topped by what could well be a miniature model of the ROM's Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.

Maybe the tree also symbolizes the play itself, which begins on a solid base of reality and then shoots off into the fantastical. Dixon may have been aiming for the same startling incongruity as the ROM Crystal. Instead, the climax of The Orange Dot only comes across as a cheap shock tactic used to finish a not-fully-realized play.

The Orange Dot continues to April 1 (crowstheatre.com).

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