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0 out of 4 stars

Horse Country

Written by C.J. Hopkins

Directed by John Clancy

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Starring David Calvitto

and Ben Schneider

At du Maurier Theatre Centre

in Toronto

Rating: ****

There aren't that many people left who actually saw vaudeville live. The cultural memory of its frenetic cross-talk floats to the surface now and again, as the Marx Brothers pop up on TV or someone raises the cry of "Who's on first?", and occasionally you even see its comic techniques resurrected in contemporary theatre. There, they are rare enough their seeming anarchy can completely befuddle an audience: One couple leaving Horse Country after its opening at World Stage Wednesday seemed to think they had just witnessed something without meaning. They couldn't have been more wrong. With this remarkable duologue, the U.S. playwright and poet C. J. Hopkins mimics the looping and loopy language of classic vaudeville but uses the shtick for a deeper purpose than simple entertainment.

Of course, Hopkins is not the first writer to harness vaudeville in this way: Horse Country also owes a big debt to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Estragon and Vladimir were struggling to find meaning in life; in Hopkins's update, Bob and Sam are struggling to find meaning in life in America.

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They start at the front of the stage, looking out at the audience from a circle of spotlight, as though we have caught them in the middle of some comedy act. Ben Schneider's over-energetic and anxious Sam isn't getting the laughs he expected; David Calvitto's more laconic and more self-confident Bob isn't helping.

The men sit back down at a table covered with bric-a-brac and a bottle of bourbon where apparently they have been playing poker. Sam, who wants to act or move forward in some way, suggests they return to the game. Bob, more cynically accepting of the futility of their situation, nixes that plan: They have lost the nine of diamonds. And so begins their circular conversation in which they return again and again to the subject of trained seals and broken horses as the clichés of thoughtless Republicanism flow from their lips: "It's a free world," they repeatedly tell each other, and, "That's what makes this country great."

It is not that Bob and Sam don't have a purpose in life; they know their task is to enjoy themselves, but the vacuousness of their attempts to do so, and therefore the pointlessness of their freedom, are comically apparent.

In this ironic spectacle in which entertainers cannot entertain themselves, Hopkins mounts a brilliant (and hilarious) critique of the emptiness of American life and the meaninglessness of the popular culture that attempts to fill the void.

Schneider, Calvitto and their director John Clancy cleverly relay this deconstruction through a pointed mimicry of familiar personas. Sam is the down-home regular guy who wants you to like him; Schneider creates him with a false jollity and a sweaty unease. Bob is the smarter one, less aware of the audience and more aware of the situation; Calvitto creates him with a false intelligence and an unearned ease, popping his eyes as he punches out particular words as though to place them in verbal quotation marks, giving an illusion of distinctive meanings where there are none.

This 70-minute, two-man play is by far the most intelligent piece to show up at what has been, to date, a rather disappointing World Stage, and it is particularly refreshing to see such a strong U.S. entry in a festival that has in the past relied so heavily on British material. Toronto, a city that never suffers from a shortage of Broadway pap, needs to see more American theatre like this.

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Horse Country is also a very timely reminder that the United States is not always the single-minded monolith whose censorious jingoism has been plaguing us in recent weeks. Hopkins's ability to look honestly into the black heart of existence is a true expression of free speech; his artfulness in fashioning a critique of culture from the ashes of a popular entertainment is a true marker of civilization.

There are three final performances of Horse Country at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre, tonight at 9:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 3:30 and 9:30 p.m.; 416-973-4000.

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