Contractions, at Toronto’s Storefront, is absurd, oppressive, touching, and very, very important
The Storefront Theatre is packed and the air is prickling with excitement on the opening night of Contractions by Red One Theatre Collective. The audience members chat amongst themselves, filling the room with noise. Then, the lights go out. The sound of high heels click across the floor. A woman appears in a smart business outfit and sits down at a desk. She waits in her office, not saying a word. A ripple goes through the audience. This scenario feels all too familiar. We sit in attentive silence, as if we are in line for our own corporate interview.
Contractions is an adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s radio play “Love Contract” from 2008. The play is the simple story of a hard-working employee named Emma who finds herself being monitored by her company for pursuing a romantic relationship with a coworker. Emma is forced to endure multiple “chats” with her unrelenting manager about company policy with cases of coworker relationships. The interviews escalate in levels of absurdity, showing a manager’s strict concern about Emma placing her life as a priority above her company.
The play is a dark comedy that benefits from the simple, but brilliant dialogue. The idea of defining romantic and sexual relationships in a memo is not unheard of, but watching someone talk of love in office terminology is hilarious. A loving relationship is calculated by time and whether it will affect the amount of sales provided by employees. I couldn’t help but laugh at their idea of romance. It was as if love was discussed by robots with human faces.
Equally brilliant, were the performances of the two actors Harmonie Tower and Catherine McNally. Tower shows so much range as Emma, who begins the play as a confident business-woman and loses her grip as the company shows its power over her life. Tower was so relatable as someone who wishes to defy a great invisible power, but is trapped because of her dependence. I shared her panic as she felt more and more boxed in, and wished for an escape even if I could sense where the play was heading.
Catherine McNally as the manager stole the show. Her embodiment of corporate conduct and policy was precise, funny, and at times chilling. The way she could convey the smugness of a company’s moral ambiguity was almost maddening. Almost everyone has gone through some bureaucratic nonsense that feels like punishment, but is delivered with a smile. McNally is perfection as the intimidating and unfeeling messenger of a Big Brother – type power.
Contractions is incredibly funny, but the disturbing message is always present. The director Jeannette Lambermont-Morey said in the pamphlet: “ The obstacles Emma encounters feel familiar. We are reminded of everything from cell phone contracts and health club memberships to our rage against government. Our protests fall on deaf ears, our gestures are meaningless, and in the end we capitulate. We even forget what we thought we wanted in the in the first place.”
Looking back at the play, I realize how it represents any company that has too much power and too little humanity. The manager is never named, and neither is the company. The two of them do not require a name, because they are symbols of what we experience in our day-to-day life. Contractions shows the strange dynamic in a way that is both short, sharp and memorable. If you want to be entertained and ponder some larger issues after, I would recommend this show.