Dystopian drama Half a League brings trash and trauma to the Toronto stage
When I was a kid, I used to play soldier with my friends, not really knowing what any of it meant. When we grew tired of the game, we’d all go back to the comfort of our homes. I now realize that this sense of security is something my friends and I, like most children, took for granted.
Half a League, currently playing until May 31st at Fraser Studios, follows the dystopian tale of three young men as they engage in pretend war games in an abandoned trash dump. Like the garbage that surrounds them, they too have been discarded by society.
This Rarely Pure Theatre production draws heavy inspiration from the classic poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Day in and day out, Pete (Mamito Kukwikila), Jim (Stephanie Carpanini) and Sam (Katie Corbridge) re-enact various wartime duties while chanting snippets of the poem.
All is well until a drop-in amnesiac guest, Billy (Nicholas Porteous), threatens to unravel the world this trio has struggled so hard to create for themselves by forcing the boys to reflect on why they spend their entire lives playing make-believe.
I found the premise of this piece quite captivating. Playwright Scott Garland’s effortless juxtaposition of youthful whimsy and gut-wrenching uncertainty is both refreshing and original. On one hand, this is a playful tale of boys just playing a game. On the other, it’s a dramatic account of children who escape into a fictional world of their own creation in order to cope with the real-life trauma they’ve experienced. To my dismay, the nature of this trauma is never fully revealed. This is where this production fell a little flat for me, and it’s my main point of contention with the show.
Usually, when a story unfolds in a dystopian setting, there’s some form of exposition that explains the history and context behind it. Here, all that’s provided are a few lines of dialogue that merely alludes to the fact that the characters are running away from their ill-fated circumstances.
While I feel it’s not always necessary to provide an in-depth background story, I couldn’t help but want a bit more. Don’t get me wrong, I loved watching the events unfold: the dialogue was poignant and witty, and the actors were thoroughly committed to their roles. But the lack of context prevented me from becoming fully immersed in the storyline.
That said, Half a League has many merits as a theatrical production.
First and foremost, the use of an invisible pantomime character, Sir Rupert (Victor Pokinko), adds a touch of whimsy to the production. Often alluded to but never interacted with by the rest of the cast, Sir Rupert helps progress the story forward with a ghostly touch, most often by moving key objects into the other characters’ proximity. This also helps highlight elements that the audience should pay particular attention to. Pokinko’s character also doubles as the musical accompaniment on his bass guitar, which adds an ominous and macabre feel to the show.
I was also truly enamoured with the dialogue. Garland is a master of writing insightful repartee disguised as normal everyday speak. I think it takes a lot of skill and experience to create lines that are quite profound, whilst still sounding natural and not overly preachy. Take this exchange between the intruder, Billy, and the leader of the troupe, Pete:
“You’re playing on a pile of trash.”
“In a world of trash.”
Of course, all this wouldn’t have been possible without the spell-biding performances of the cast. While there were certainly no weak links in the ensemble, I think much kudos should be awarded to Kukwikila for her passionate portrayal of the brigade captain. Kukwikila displays a range of emotional depth that far exceeds her age, and a contagious vigour that makes you want to stand up and fight right alongside her.
It’s also an interesting choice to have the three boys played by female actors. While this is actually quite common in the theatre, I think it made for a gentler, more realistic and less assuming portrayal of their personas.
Overall, there are many individual elements that make this piece very compelling. But in this reviewer’s opinion, it’s missing the context and framework that would have better tied them all together.
- Half a League is currently playing at Fraser Studios (76 Stafford Street) until May 31st, 2015.
- Shows run Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
- Tickets cost $20 and can be purchased in person prior to the performance, or online. Discounts available for students and seniors.
Photo courtesy of Rarely Pure Theatre