Commencement, a solo play about a school shooting takes the stage at Toronto’s Hub 14
Commencement is built of three monologues: one from mother of a school shooter; one from a classmate; and one from a victim’s mother. From the very beginning we know exactly what has happened, and playwright Clay McLeod Chapman pushes us to imagine why.
As we explore the ways in which these three women — all played by Janelle Hanna — grapple with that moment of public violence, the stories begin to blend and intertwine. And under the guise of talking about one awful day in an American high school, Chapman gets his audience thinking about bullying, parenthood, crushes, adolescence, and how “the best years of our lives” can go so horribly, horribly wrong.
My guest and I had a long talk afterwards: I liked Commencement; she didn’t. One thing she raised is that the monologues are almost in reverse order. The very first section (told from the perspective of the shooter’s mother) is downright accusatory at times, a real shock to the system, but also the most important bit of the show, asking questions and going places which make many people nauseous. By contrast, the third monologue (a victim’s mother) is the most conventional: tragic, but well-worn and pretty much exactly what you’d expect.
The effect of front-loading the most interesting and challenging bits of the show made the rest of it feel as thought it was slowly deflating. Certainly, kudos for not running to the more obvious trio (mother; classmate; THE SHOOTER HIMSELF, DUN DUN DUN DUNNN), but I would have preferred to spend longer with the first two people rather than having a perfunctory third.
This is partly because Hanna and director Laura Anne Harris do their best work with the first two. In part one, Hanna perfectly captures a twitchy, nervous and uncertain woman going through one of the worst experiences a parent can have, while part two is charming and affecting, a shaft of light in the middle of this foggy narrative. Harris’ characteristic movement and physical action come to the fore in this second section: Hanna positively bubbles and levitates across the stage, a little bundle of nervous energy and repressed joy, happy to finally be able to reveal her secrets.
I thought Hanna handled her transitions well, playing at least six characters over the course of the show; my guest disagreed, hoping for more distinction. And I think that’s the most telling disagreement we had.
This show is deep and murky and built of wheels within wheels. Chapman likes dropping bricks; Harris likes gimmicks. (I use the term affectionately: her use of books is one of the greatest devices I’ve seen in eons.) That’s not to say that only clever people will understand it, just that you need to approach it with a certain amount of patience and good faith.
Chapman’s writing rewards people who give it a chance, enduring moments of apparent weakness on the assumption that there’s a method to it all. That’s risky, and a lot of people just won’t have the attention span or the stomach for it. But if you’re up for a thinkity-think piece of theatre, and especially if you’re game for a new perspective on bullying, Commencement will take you places you probably never even considered.
- Commencement runs through Saturday, May 10th 2015 at Hub 14. (14 Markham St., near Queen and Bathurst)
- Performance times vary; see website.
- Tickets are $20 for general admission; discounts available for students, seniors, arts workers and teachers, see website.
- Tickets can be purchased online or in-person from the venue approximately 20 minutes before showtime. This venue is very small, and advance purchase is strongly recommended.
- Be advised that patrons will need to climb a fire escape to enter the venue. This venue is not wheelchair-accessible.
- Although this show’s content is appropriate for all ages, the subject matter may not be of interest to young children. Recommended for people aged 12 and up.
Photograph of Janelle Hanna by Dahlia Katz.