Nature of the Beast, at the Storefront Theatre in Toronto, leaves audiences “unsettled and unsatisfied”
Nature of the Beast turns upon Francis (Nicholas Rice), a genial old stoner — think Bob Ross and his happy little trees — who lives in a tiny cottage up the ass-end of nowhere. He earns a little money selling wood carvings, and a lot of money as an unlikely dom, entertaining a parade of privileged city slickers who’d like to be whipped into shape in his basement.
All’s well until Francis’ teenaged nephew (Jakob Ehman) drops in suddenly and expects to stay: big argument at home, things that can’t be unsaid, and the kid’s got nowhere else to go.
But as Francis tries to balance these two worlds which can’t collide — the fragile high school student in the guestroom, the client (Clint Butler) chained to the wall in the basement — his life slowly begins to unravel, until playwright Brandon Crone finally reveals (here it comes, folks, I hope you’re ready) the Nature of the Beast.
About 60% of the script is warm and lovely: Crone smartly bypasses the obvious sex-farce stuff and goes for deeper humour and observations, nailing them consistently. There’s almost something weirdly Norman Rockwellish about this particular bondage den — and designer Claire Hill’s done outstanding work bringing us into the picture, easily the best set I’ve seen at the Storefront in ages.
But then it gets weird.
A lot of the second act, and the last 10-15 minutes in particular, seems to be there primarily for the sake of punching the audience repeatedly in the guts. And, yes, it’s fascinating to step back and think real deep thinkity-think thoughts about this direction — similarities to the bondage relationship, a prescient conversation in the first act, etc. — but in the moment it felt like a cheat, as if the audience is being punished into having a reaction.
The good news is that Crone’s script is piled high with goodies for the actors, and they run with it. Clint Butler (as the client) only gets two scenes, yet establishes a presence which lingers and tells; Jakob Ehman (as the nephew) fully engages with the awkwardness and creepiness the role allows.
But it’s Francis’ show, and you really can’t do better than Nicholas Rice. Getting the audience to underestimate a character is always a challenge, but Rice’s ability to persuade us that he is precisely what he appears to be — even after we know damned well he isn’t — is profound and chilling.
But there are problems, not with the cast. A few moments which run twice as long as they need to; a few points of fridge logic (why would anyone walk right past a laptop computer with internet access in order to search their living room for a phone book?); and the ending falls out of the sky, resolving everything at a breakneck speed that seemed to leave a lot of people unsettled and unsatisfied.
I hope Crone keeps working on this one: apparently he’s been living with it, in various iterations, since 2008, and there’s some really good stuff here, especially in the first act. But while it’s still likely to be of interest to audiences who are looking for a smarter-than-average (and darker-than-tar) sex comedy, I think it still needs a little more time under a blue pencil before it’s ready to break out.
- Nature of the Beast runs through April 11th 2015 at the Storefront Theatre. (955 Bloor St. West, near Ossington)
- Plays Wednesday through Saturday at 8 PM; occasional matinees, see website for details.
- Ticket prices vary from $15-25, see website for details.
- Tickets can be purchased online or in-person immediately prior to performances. This is an extremely small venue, and advance purchase is strongly recommended.
- This show features frank depictions of human sexuality, realistic violence, and emotional abuse.
Photo of Nicholas Rice and Jakob Ehman by John Gundy.