Review: Agency (Yell Rebel Theatre)

Photo of Eva Barrie and Earl Pastko in AgencyEva Barrie play, on stage in Toronto, is a fascinating character study

Actions born out of dire situations can come back to haunt us. In Yell Rebel Theatre’s Agency, playing at the Theatre Centre Incubator Space until November 20th, the consequences of past actions becomes a living, breathing thing.

A disturbing script delves into questions of self, histories, and the point at which a person can, or can’t, let go.

Written by Eva Barrie, Agency tells the story of Hannah (Barrie), a young woman on a quest to find out the real story of what happened to her father Peter (Ben Sanders) when he tried to escape East Berlin. She tracks down his old friend—and a past informer—Thomas (Earl Pastko) who may or may not know more than he’s letting on.

I loved the play in its dark and brooding glory. Barrie’s work shines both in its dialogue and relationships. The play doesn’t try to moralize about decisions made while living in a surveillance state. Instead, Barrie focuses on the uselessness of trying to fix the past while managing to argue it’s important to never entirely forget.

Barrie also gets to shine on stage as Hannah, front and centre. I think she stole the entire show with this fascinating character. Hannah’s desperation to know the truth about her dad stems from something darker than a reconciliation with the past.

She is not easy to define: unsure, passionate, curious, but also reaching for something impossible. She repeatedly turns the tables on Thomas, renegotiating their relationship with a shrewd eye for getting the answers she wants. Barrie captures multiple feelings with ease, and just unfurls her performance bit by bit.

It’s so great. Sadly, as much as I like it, Agency isn’t perfect.

For one thing, I thought Sanders’ Peter was virtually a non-entity. I liked the idea around his presence, the show indicating a fluid past and present, the literal living memory that lurks while Hannah and Thomas talk. It works onstage, but I think the problem was that he was just so generic.

We are supposed to see him like Thomas sees him: a man who decides it’s worth it to try and escape East Berlin at great risk to his life; someone who jokes a little too loudly when he shouldn’t. I didn’t really get a feeling for him outside of ‘cool friend,’ which is too bad.

Admittedly, there’s not much for Sanders to work with, and that of course is part of the problem. Thomas and Hannah are fully formed characters. Peter is a stock figure existing strictly for the story.

As for Pastko’s Thomas, I thought there was some discrepancy between the wonderful nuance of the character and the performance. He plays the early sarcasm and aggravation so well and I challenge you not to feel your heart swell at the very last scene, but getting there was hard.

At one point, he actively threatens Hannah, looming over her. The context was there, but I didn’t find him threatening at all. If the show had played him as more pathetic or more actively mean instead of downtrodden, it might have helped. I do blame the direction a little here because I felt like no one could decide whether they needed him to be more of a villain or more pathetic. Not making a definitive character choice, in my opinion, impacted the ending drastically.

See, there’s an interesting connection that forms between Thomas and Hannah, one that defies labels. It’s not good or bad or healthy or unhealthy; it’s just two people in a very strange moment of terrible understanding.

And then something happens that utterly upends what was, previously, a beautiful balance.

I though it had a really negative impact overall because there is a very specific context (that I can’t reveal) that makes this moment weird and uncomfortable and not in a thought-provoking way. It fundamentally alters the fantastic final scene which only serves to highlight just how jarring and nonsensical this moment actually is. Worse, it adds a strange layer that is dropped way to easily like they lost the nerve to follow through on what this action meant for everything else that came before.

Despite some weaknesses, though, it’s hard to complain, because it’s such a good play, with a character you won’t easily forget. Agency is exactly the type of theatre I like. It’s a show worth watching.

Details

  • Agency runs until November 20th, 2016 at the Theatre Centre Incubator Space (1115 Queen Street West)
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 7pm with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 1pm
  • Tickets $22 or $18 for students/artists/seniors and can be purchased at the Theatre Centre box office prior to the show, by phone at 416-538-0988, or online here
  • PWYC tickets are available at the door for the following weekend 1pm matinees: November 12th, 13th, and 19th

Photo of Eva Barrie and Earl Pastko by Greg Wong