The Test is an English translation of a play by Swiss-German playwright Lukas Bärfuss, produced by The Company Theatre. They also produced the Danish play Festen in 2008, which I had the pleasure of seeing. Both Festen and The Test feature performances by Philip Riccio, Eric Peterson and direction by Jason Byrne and the similarities don’t end there. Both plays are tragicomedies around a dark family secret. Unlike most work with such subject matter, in these two plays the secret is revealed right at the beginning. Instead of building up to a revelation these plays start off with it and the main action are the characters dealing with their newfound knowledge.
There is probably no stage on the world that Eric Peterson will not own the minute he walks onto it. As the patriarch of the family character Simon Korach exerts an influence over the other characters that starts out subtly and becomes more apparent as everything unravels. He is also a politician currently campaigning for election, which creates some political discourse in the dialogue. There are also class dynamics at play, as another central character is Franzek, a former homeless alcoholic who Simon took in and made his right-hand man. Franzek is a charming sociopath with some of the most hilarious lines, played very precisely by Phillip Riccio.
Simon’s son Peter, played by Gord Rand, has decided to have a paternity test done on his son to determine if he is the biological father. That is the catalyst that brings out the family secret at the top of the play. Peter’s wife Agnes is dazed and confused about the whole thing. She is played by Liisa Repo-Martell who gets one chance to shine in a scene where Agnes arrives in an extremely intoxicated state. Simon’s wife and Peter’s mother is Helle, played by Sonja Smits, who has the undeniable stage presence you’d expect of someone with her impressive career.
However adept the performances were, they didn’t feel like they were in the same play. Franzek, with his quick wit, was in a fast-talking farce, he reminded me of Jeff from the TV show Community. Simon was in a Chekhov play which, when played correctly, are as funny as they are serious. Agnes was in one of those twee indie films where everyone’s cute even when they’re having a semi-violent nervous breakdown. Helle was in Valley of The Dolls. Peter starts out the play with a long monologue that’s poetically obscene, like something written by one of the Beats, and he isn’t in it much after that.
The characters were fully believable, but they each had their own pacing and style that didn’t mesh with the others, which made the play feel disjointed to me. It felt like slow dancing with someone who was out of step by just a second.
Contributing to that sensation was the background music, a light classical score that you would expect to accompany elderly ladies sipping tea and eating crumpets. I’m sure it was supposed to invoke Simon’s class pretensions, but to me it felt jarringly at odds with the dark acerbic dialogue. I was positive for the first part of the play that it must be sound bleeding through from the other space at the Berkeley Street venue.
It’s an interesting play, dealing with very contemporary issues, and it has some excellent performances. Unfortunately this production does not present itself as a cohesive whole.
– The Test is playing at the Berkeley Street theatre (26 Berkeley Street) until November 26th.
– Performances are Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Mondays at 8 pm and Saturdays at 2pm.
– Ticket prices range from $22 to $49.
– Tickets are available at the box office, by phone at 416-368-3110 or online.
Photo of Eric Peterson and Sonja Smits by Guntar Kravis.