The ambitious new play Under the Knife by Brandy Baker, mounted by Two Planks, debuts at the Randolph Theatre as part of the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival. With a cast of seven playing twelve roles, an eighty-five minute running time, and nearly twenty scenes, the scale of the production doesn’t always live up to its aspirations.
As the company’s website states, the play is about a myriad of subjects including pharmaceutical addiction, health insurance, working under the table, emphysema, finding Jesus: just an average life in the modern-day United States.
Unloading trucks for a living, Ronnie (Jeremy Knapton) lives with his sister, Wendy (Kay Bailey), her son Chris (Donovan Jackson), and their mother Lena (Karen Brown). Times are nearly as tight as their household arrangements. The drug dealer drops by for Lena; Chris arrives with a severed finger he found in the woods; Ronnie falls in love with Rosa (Alicia Payne), the sister of the owner of the finger… Well, you understand how convoluted all of this becomes.
Under the Knife goes through the motions of being a family political drama without being honest about its intention. These characters are down-on-their-luck but the script never questions why. Instead it focuses on their day-to-day lives, steeped in melodrama.
When investigating the underprivileged, I find it’s more helpful to ground your choices in reality, to make the audience connect to the characters’ situation rather than their political agendas. It seems as though this production believes that being ‘dramatic’ means using heavy sighs and long pauses to add weight to the proceedings.
Baker’s script saddles actors with lengthy expository monologues for sympathy’s sake. For instance, an hour into the show, Rosa explains to Ronnie why they don’t need to marry since she already married someone five years ago and has her green card.
Unfortunately, it often felt as though the actors were waiting for their cue lines, rather than listening to each other and developing the emotional life of the characters behind the clichés. The cast also often uses volume to convey ‘important points’, channeling a Jerry Springer brawl during some of the play’s whirlwind of short scenes.
Without any designers credited, I felt the look of the show was lacking. The stage is full of furniture that needed to be moved frequently to an annoying repeating clicking sound which served as transition music. The kitchen table accidentally collapsed midway through the first show; the lighting frequently illuminates only half the scene and does not distinguish settings; and oversized baggy clothes were worn by Ronnie who receives comments about how attractive and appealing he is as if it’s plain to see.
I’m not sure if the playwright intended us to be angry about the state of the world she depicts in the play or if she meant it as a topical drama. Either way, I found myself more frustrated at the missed chance to comment on the immediate moment, to offer us hope or a potential solution, to suggest that things could have turned out differently. Instead the play ends before the Trump election.
Not surprisingly, the play ends with tragedy. The cycle appears to continue as if nothing has changed. But the audience sees the damage – it was inevitable.
- Under the Knife plays at the Randolph Theatre. (736 Bathurst St.)
- 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: Mature language; Sexual content; Unsuitable for minors.
- This venue is wheelchair-accessible through a secondary route. We recommend checking in with the venue box office at least 15 minutes before showtime.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- Friday July 6th, 3:00 pm
- Saturday July 7th, 11:00 pm
- Monday July 9th, 6:00 pm
- Tuesday July 10th, 2:30 pm
- Wednesday July 11th, 8:45 pm
- Friday July 13th, 8:45 pm
- Saturday July 14th, 7:00 pm
Photo of the cast by Dan Abramovici