Review: This (Canadian Stage)

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You probably haven’t seen anything like This at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre

The title of This, currently produced by Canadian Stage, lends itself to a lot of wordplay, sometimes unintentional. When I walked into the Berkeley Street Theatre I gasped and said to my companion “I’ve never seen it like this.” I wasn’t referencing the play itself, though I laughed about it a second later. But I think the designer’s decision to strip away the stage from the space was intended to evoke a reaction to “this” and thus set the mood for the play.

Without the stage, curtains, or any sort of artificial backdrop, the theatre is left with old, gorgeous windows, flooring, and a door that leads out onto Berkeley Street itself and functions as the front door leading into Tom and Marrell’s home. It also strongly evokes the idea that the couple lives in one of those old converted lofts, so popular among the relatively young and relatively affluent. You can’t help but feel like you are right there in their space with them, an impression accentuated by the fact that seats from the upper balcony have been installed in the corner on the main floor, creating an immersive experience.

I couldn’t tell from my vantage point if other characters ever sat among the audience on my side, but the character of Jean-Pierre often took a seat in that main floor section while action was happening that did not include him. This seemed specifically appropriate for him, the character who is an outsider to the other four, who comes in as an unknowing catalyst to break the limbo the others have been living in for the last year.

Tom and Marrell have a new baby and a troubled marriage. The trouble predates the baby, and probably has grown from small differences over the years, starting back when they first met as Tom makes it very clear that they come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Though the baby, who has not yet slept for more than fifteen minutes at a time, certainly doesn’t help.

As the play begins, Tom and Marrell are having people over for the first time since the birth. They have invited two of Marrell’s oldest friends: Alan, a wise-cracking gay man with the incredible gift of perfect recall, and Jane, a poet who is raising her daughter by herself since her husband’s death.

There is a third guest: Marrell has decided that Jane’s mourning and singleness have gone on long enough and invited the handsome Jean-Pierre, a French doctor who does good works with Doctors Without Borders.

The dynamics that play out are both painfully familiar and fresh and unexpected. Alan’s ability to remember, word-for-word, a conversation that Tom and Marrell recall quite differently underlines the ubiquitous human tendency to perceive our relationships in a way that suits our own emotional perspective. Jean-Pierre is the perfect foil to all these characters, especially as he is a vibrantly sexual and moral person. As such, he contradicts any sex-negativity which could easily be otherwise construed from the narrative, given the sort of shame and judgement that still socially cling to such matters.

The story here is really about Jane, and about mortality, and about how terribly hard it can be to move on when someone you love dies and you are left trying to hold the pieces, including a child, together.

The majority of the show is so funny that my cynical self was fully engaged and open to the emotion that hits near the end. Not that it turned into a tear-jerker – but the final moments were the perfect kind of solemn. They seemed to underline a judgement that Jean-Pierre had made earlier about the relevant importance of the group’s worries, but also added a sense of loss that we know, as humans, can be at times more powerful than any objective sense of significance.

My companion and I thoroughly enjoyed This. I highly recommend seeing it. The script is tight, hilarious and intelligent, the performances are top-notch, and the design and direction are inspired.

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Photo of Yanna McIntosh and Laura Condlln by Bruce Zinger