Review: The Summoned (Tarragon)

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre

The Summoned explores technology in modern life, on stage at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto

In The Summoned, Fabrizio Filippo’s new play premiering at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, “the summoned” are the major figures in the life of a recently-deceased billionaire, head of a tech company and empire, who gather at a budget hotel by an airport to hear the reading of his will.

The play, which tries to answer the question, “how far from our nature can technology take us?” shows a distinctive voice. It’s creative, entertaining, and has fascinating sci-fi implications. It also has numerous rough edges, relies too much on shock value, and strays into writerly self-indulgence, just like our online world. In short, it’s a promising idea that needs another round of beta testing.

Kahn, the dead technocrat “with the name of a Star Trek movie villain,” has engineered this meeting with ulterior motives, to see sparks fly. There’s Annie (Maggie Huculak) who owns the hotel, and her son Aldous (Filippo), along with Aldous’ semi-girlfriend Isla (Rachel Cairns), a flight attendant with impressive flexibility and imperviousness to fear or historical knowledge.

Laura (Kelli Fox) provider of legal (and other) services, and Gary (John Bourgeois), the business partner who turned garage tinkering into a worldwide phenomenon, round out the group. Tony Nappo herds them back and forth as security, brooking no nonsense and equipped with a very funny and destructive recurring sight gag. Of course, unexpected connections and secrets are revealed.

Much of these revelations appear in a torrent of exposition, as Filippo’s character Aldous spends most of the time in monologue to the audience, technological truth-telling. He covers topics like the meaning of search results for your name, and the power of repeated myth and misattribution, evoking the laughter of recognition.

Monologuing also provides most of the information about the characters’ relationships to each other, which isn’t a good thing; it’s unfair to the other characters on stage, who get precious little chance to show us the development of those relationships. That’s too bad, as the moments they do get together can spark, particularly in the interplay between the two women in Kahn’s life.

The constant monologue is one of a few deliberate attempts to keep us from connecting with Aldous’ character, which works better in theory than as an experience. The static, linear staging as a whole also keeps the audience at a distance.

The actors still do a fine job, particularly Huculak as the brittle yet impassively controlled Annie; the humour’s sharp, though transitions can be a bit shaky. A more gratifying technique features younger actors playing older characters in flashbacks, conversations with dead people which pack a punch later on.

The accompanying projections are fun: online searches, emoticons, and important words from the script, many having a retro-computing, WordArt feel to go with the computer museum display outside the theatre.

When characters do interact, they are forced into emotional confessions, via fast-acting technology instead of the usual alcohol. Yes, it’s commentary on a world that reaches for fast results without regard for consequence, but it’s also an annoying shortcut from the playwright, trying to get right to the fireworks without preparing the flame.

Some of the resulting twists are intriguing, some are telegraphed, and some are transgressive for transgression’s sake; the show’s suggestion that breaking technological boundaries inevitably leads to breaking every social boundary and taboo doesn’t quite convince in the end.

One thing I did very much enjoy is the play’s acknowledgement of the burning issue of women’s contributions to tech and erasure from history, women who go from wanting to “make everything but babies,” to “the type of women who talk about our children first.” The script doesn’t let them fade into the shadows when their contributions demand to be recognized.

Putting those complexities and stories first is essential and refreshing in a world where even the Tarragon season program front cover unconsciously features, literally, three men and a baby.

The Summoned is better at portraying technology than humanity. When the connection-severing heart of technology meets the connection-forming heart of theatre, there’s bound to be some friction. It’s a conversation worth having, but more people need to speak.

Details:

  • The Summoned runs until May 29 at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace (30 Bridgman Avenue).
  • Evening shows are Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00PM, Sundays at 2:30PM, with Saturday performances April 20, May 7, and May 14 at 2:30PM.
  • Tickets are $28-60 (discounts for students, seniors, groups and artsworkes) and can be purchase online or by calling (416) 531-1827. Rush Tickets are sold at the box office for $15 two hours before each performance.

Photo of Rachel Cairns, John Bourgeois, Maggie Huculak, Kelli Fox, Fabrizio Filippo, Tony Nappo by Cylla von Tiedemann