Coal Mine Theatre presents a claustrophobic and dystopian drama on stage in Toronto
Three people are imprisoned in close quarters and stripped of their humanity, reduced to test subjects for mysterious experiments. This is the premise of Category E, by Edmonton playwright Belinda Cornish, onstage now at Coal Mine Theatre. It’s a horrific dystopia that left me wanting answers to a lot of questions. I would go see a sequel, or a prequel, in a heartbeat, both to find answers and to enjoy more of Cornish’s tightly-wound work.
Coal Mine Theatre is a very small space, which lends itself to the claustrophobic feel of this production’s configuration. The audience sits alley style, rows on either side of the stage, which is enclosed in chicken wire. The set is that of a prison: two cots, a table, a stool and not much else. The lighting allowed me to see the people in the first few rows across, through the chicken wire, which gained malevolent meaning when the characters discussed how Thunderdome might be real, and done for pure entertainment.
When Millet (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) enters, Filigree (Diana Bentley) is asleep on one cot and Corcoran (Robert Persichini) sits in a wheelchair, doing a crossword puzzle. As Millet and Corcoran have their first conversation, we learn something that, to me, is much more uncomfortable than the setting: they call each other “it” as a pronoun, and “things” instead of people. They are not even supposed to have the names they use.
For the rest of this review I will use “he” and “she” as defined by the bios of the actors because this dehumanizing, which is so creepily effective in the context of the show, is not something I am willing to perpetrate while writing about it.
At intervals, an orange light flashes and a smooth, robotic voice requires one of the subjects, identified by the numbers printed on their uniforms, to go to a place named by the alphabet, such as A or B or C. While we never explicitly discover what the title, Category E, refers to, it is implied that it is a room where a surgical procedure happens. When Filigree is found to have her back stitched up in such a way that a kidney might have been removed, or inserted, Corcoran angrily says to the camera mounted on the wall that she was supposed to have been in D, not E.
Three people confined in a small space for an extended period of time are forced to develop interesting relationships. In this case, Filigree, who is clearly lacking in socialization, terrorizes Millet. When called on it by Corcoran, she has a speech ready to go about how she has never had a family, so she doesn’t know how to behave.
Her dynamic with Corcoran, however, is that of a child with a parent. It is a credit to all the actors, and the characters as written, that the relationships grow to include Millet as a sibling/child, as it is a remarkable trajectory from her first appearance on the scene.
“But why?” you might ask. There is a society outside, and it sounds like it functions somewhat normally. Who gets to remain, and who enters the facility, is governed by something called The Eye. This might be a person, a group of people, a process, an algorithm, we just don’t know. Recorded ads for things like masculine body spray or feminine mascara are played over transitions in time, communicating that this society is extremely consumerist. So perhaps the experimentation on the subjects is used to develop these products.
There is one thing certain: The Eye has no regard for human life. And Corcoran knows something about it, but he’s not telling.
While I will complain that a character who spends a show in a wheelchair should be played by an actor who is similarly disabled, this is my only criticism. Category E is a gem of grim science fiction.
- Category E, is playing at Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave until April 29, 2018
- Showtimes are Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 pm, with Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm
- Tickets are $42.50 + hst with limited rush tickets available for $25, hst included
- Purchase tickets online
Picture of Diana Bentley, Vivien Endicott-Douglas and Robert Persichini by Tim Leyes