Final Exam produced by Holy Cow Entertainment playing at the Toronto Fringe Festival is an intelligent and frightening addition to the 2018 lineup, although its execution and programmatic narrative fall short of what it could be.
We all remember having to study seemingly irrelevant material in high school; parroting back the data taught to us that often wouldn’t be applicable to our daily lives. But what if we knew the knowledge we were absorbing was irrelevant because in a few weeks we were to absorb the breadth of modern human knowledge due to alien intervention?
This is the starting point of Final Exam; students attending class on the brink of a massive integration of human thought, brought about by a group of seemingly benevolent extraterrestrials promising technology, environmental solutions, and an opportunity to join a larger intergalactic community — at the cost of joining a communal hive mind.
The concept is definitely intriguing and was the big reason I chose to review this show, but sadly instead of a complex debate about struggling individuality vs. comfortable conformism the show instead basically became an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark.
That’s not to say the show shies away from that debate. The first 15-20 minutes focus entirely on that, including an actual debate between the most vocal characters on each side, exploring everything from personal identity to humanity’s unfortunate lack of empathy for each other. It even touches on the idea of privacy, couching that aspect in social media which I appreciated because it gave a sense of immediacy and relevance to the young characters.
Sadly that debate was overshadowed by the majority of the show, which focused more on the premature commencement of the aforementioned hive mind integration, designated as “The Process”. This would be fine except that the audience participation section of the play, namely everyone voting on whether or not they agreed with “The Process”, was rendered moot and didn’t feel like it had a clear purpose. Instead the play traded ambiguity and the validity of the two arguments for a programmatic black and white message.
I’ll admit I’m someone who enjoys ambiguous messages, and I quite enjoy plays that basically consist of people arguing over philosophical details so this is definitely a subjective response, but I would have enjoyed a full 50 minutes of the different characters voicing their opinions on why or why not they should take part in the aliens’ plan, ultimately leaving it up to the audience to decide on which side they fell. On some level it almost felt like the writer, Eric Petersen, didn’t trust himself to provide valid arguments for one side.
This is unfortunate because the show certainly has intellectual chops. Throughout the play references are made to Keats, Marcus Aurelius and especially T.S. Eliot (a poet I personally really like) and there’s a literary pedigree behind the writing that gives the show a strong backbone.
There’s a clear desire to immerse the audience in the world Holy Cow Entertainment is creating, from the site specific choice of a classroom to the program which is designed as a daily schedule with in-universe notes and events. I found myself really wanting to buy into the story but just couldn’t fully engage, especially when the story shifted away from theoretical discourse and became an outright horror narrative.
Fringe is at its heart a place for companies to try out new ideas and take risks and I applaud Holy Cow Entertainment for this attempt, but I can’t bring myself to recommend Final Exam in its current form.
- Final Exam plays at Matty Eckler Recreation Centre (953 Gerrard Street East)
- Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (707 Dundas St. W.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Content Warnings: Parental guidance advised, Audience participation
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- Thursday, July 5th at 7 PM
- Friday, July 6th at 7 PM
- Saturday, July 7th at 4 PM
- Wednesday, July 11th at 7 PM
- Thursday, July 12th at 7 PM
- Friday, July 13th at 7 PM
- Saturday, July 14th at 4 PM