Strange but “unlike anything” play takes to the Toronto stage
In keeping with my decision to see plays that sound like they may be outside my comfort zone, I saw Grimly Handsome on Saturday evening at The Assembly Theatre. The press release describes the playwright Julia Jarcho as “a queen of experimental mayhem”–not something I’d usually choose.
It was outside my comfort zone, but not for any reason I might have anticipated. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure that I understood it. I saw it on my own because my friend had a family medical emergency, and I didn’t have anyone to talk with afterwards to help clarify my thinking. Not much in the way of eavesdropping either. The only thing I heard was the woman behind me say, “That was weird. I liked it though. But it was weird.”
I’ve been thinking about this play for 18 hours. It was weird in that it wasn’t like the plays I normally see in Toronto, and I liked it a lot. At times it was darkly funny. A lot of the dialogue was made up of conversations between two male characters; sometimes it was jagged and sometimes it was poetic. Overall, it was quite beautiful.
Three very talented actors — Julia Course, Jeff Irving, and Ben Sanders — played ten characters in three interrelated stories.
The first was a cautionary tale about two men selling Christmas trees in a vacant city lot. Gregor (Sanders) has been doing it for seven years and is teaching his new partner Alesh (Irving) the tricks of the trade.
Sanders was terrific as Gregor: patient and friendly on the surface but angry and tightly coiled underneath. Irving, as Alesh, was a perfect foil; charming, friendly, eager to please. It took me a while to figure out that when they were speaking with no accent they were speaking in their native language. When they spoke with a Slavic accent, they were speaking English.
Julia Course, meanwhile, was a delight as Natalia: naive, lonely, and shyly soft-spoken.
The second story was a mystery/thriller with two detectives hunting for a serial killer. Irving as Alesh is the angry one in this piece. His partner Greggins (Sanders) is calmer on the surface but you can sense that there’s turmoil underneath.
My favourite scene, and character, was in this part. Mr. Nally (Course), a witness or maybe a suspect, was being interviewed, and all he could focus on was that he needed cream for his coffee. Course’s verbal and physical tics and twitches were sheer perfection. So was the timing between the three actors.
The third part was a bit weird. Three lesser pandas were hanging out in the empty lot. Noplop (Course), the big sister was philosophical, musing about their past, their possible future, and the meaning of life in general. Her brothers, Alfo (Irving) and Grox (Sanders) were goofballs, not thinking about much beyond where to find their next bone.
I was really impressed by the range of all the actors and their ability to play such different characters in such a short time.
Jay Turvey’s direction was also great. He kept the action moving well and made a small space seem big.
Michael Kangas’ lighting added to the feeling of space and broke the stage into distinct areas. Sometimes I’m tempted to check out what’s happening in the dark parts of the stage, but I wasn’t on Saturday due to a combination of the play holding my interest and this effective lighting.
The set and costumes were both by Christine Urquhart. The Christmas tree lot had sawdust on the ground and a few fir trees, as well as a couple of stumps that served as seats. I swear that I could smell sawdust.
Grimly Handsome ultimately left me with more questions than answers. Am I supposed to dissect the play to find deep meaning? Is it ok to just enjoy it for what it is? I don’t know. But I’m not too concerned about it. I spent an enjoyable evening watching something unlike anything I’d seen before. It’s good to do that once in a while.
- Grimly Handsome is playing until November 19 at The Assembly Theatre (1479 Queen St West)
- Show times are 8:00pm Thursday through Sunday with matinees at 2:00pm on Saturday and 4:00pm on Sunday
- Tickets are $25.00, $20.00 for students/arts workers and are available online and at the venue
- It’s a small theatre so it’s best to get tickets in advance
Photo of Ben Sanders, Julia Course, and Jeff Irving by Barry McClusky