While it's unlikely that Soulpepper picks its Canadian programming by throwing darts at a list of past winners of the Governor General's Award for Drama, it can sometimes seem like that's the case.
Sticking to plays that have previously made the GG grade has served the company well in the past, with the Eric Peterson-John Gray hit Billy Bishop Goes to War and Sharon Pollock's Doc. But this season it's proved more problematic.
First, there was the fizzle of Guillermo Verdecchia's Fronteras Americanas and, now, Judith Thompson's 1984 winner, White Biting Dog, proves to be all bark and no bite – at least it does in director Nancy Palk's muscular but nonsensical production.
Mixing the naturalistic grittiness of her 1980 debut The Crackwalker with elements of magical realism and absurdism, Thompson's second play certainly still seems full of audacity.
Anti-hero Cape Race (Mike Ross) is a 30ish Toronto lawyer who, following a divorce and nervous breakdown, not necessarily in that order, decides to throw himself from the Bloor Street Viaduct.
Before he can cause a traffic jam on the Don Valley Parkway, however, a small white dog appears to Cape like some sort of canine guardian angel. He delivers a message and a mission: If Cape can save his father Glidden (Joseph Ziegler), then he will also save himself from depression.
Cape has just moved back in with Glidden, who is in the terminal stages of a broken heart. He walks around the family's Rosedale home covering himself in earth either to help hasten his interment or because loam brings him within a syllable's distance of his estranged wife's name, Lomia (Fiona Reid).
Cape decides he needs to reunite his parents and, to this end, enlists the ostensible owner of the dog that spoke to him on the bridge. The owner's name is Pony (Michaela Washburn), and she's a former paramedic who now runs a fix-it stand a mall in Mississauga – her putative powers of healing applying to both the animate and inanimate.
Before you can say dog-and-pony show, Lomia and her boyfriend Pascal (Gregory Prest) – a punk young enough to be Cape's brother – are knocking on Glidden's door seeking shelter, their apartment having been burned to the ground by a disgruntled meth addict.
From here, Thompson's dark family comedy follows its own internal logic in plot and interpersonal dynamics. In Palk's murky, class-unconscious production – the acclaimed actress's debut as a director at Soulpepper – there's plenty of poetry and rhythm, but any semblance of meaning gets lost on its way from the text to the audience. The pleasingly phrased but head-scratching dialogue comes across as a series of shocking non-sequiturs, until suddenly mother and son are violently making out, or another character is eating the frozen corpses of Dachshunds.
In her inventive excesses, Thompson was easily a decade ahead of the British in-your-face movement that brought us such playwrights as Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, and this Soulpepper cast is more than game to wallow in the play's muck.
Ziegler gives the show a heart with his sympathetic, downtrodden cuckold Glidden, even while showering himself with peat moss and appearing on all fours with a bone in his mouth. Likewise, Reid is ferociously on form as the self-dramatizing proto-cougar Lomia, who enjoys a bit of sadomasochism and spends most of the play in a negligee. Prest also impresses as a very funny, deadpan Pascal, who – despite his Mohawk and moodiness – seems the nearest thing to normal compared to the Races.
As the oracular Pony, however, Washburn rings the same note of simple innocence until it stops sounding. Most seriously, Ross never seems to find a focus for Cape and overcompensates for his inherent likeability by hitting his extremes too hard; his central character self-describes as sociopathic, but he comes across as schizophrenic, trying on different personalities with each scene. The final character in the play, Toronto itself, is similarly lost in Christina Poddubiuk's drab design and the fuzz of Palk's production.
White Biting Dog
- Written by Judith Thompson
- Directed by Nancy Palk
- Starring Mike Ross, Fiona Reid, Joseph Ziegler
- At Soulpepper in Toronto