Review: Human Animals (ARC)

ARC presents a site-specific production of Stef Smith’s play Human Animals in Toronto

Stef Smith’s Human Animals, produced by ARC, presents us with a dystopian vision of neighbours hanging onto sanity as Toronto’s animal population turns crazed with disease. Staged in St. Matthews Clubhouse, this site-specific work delivers on the thrill of impending apocalypse through realistic characters, whose everyday problems don’t go away just because the world might end.

The play embraces  social commentary and the message is clear from the outset: we humans are prone to mass hysteria and don’t need something to be verifiably true–like reports of diseased animals running rampant–before acting as if it were true, to devastating consequences. The challenge for Human Animals is then to develop this metaphor without beating its audience over the head with it, such that the story may be savoured without excessive moralizing. This challenge, in my estimation, is met with a high degree of professionalism and love of craft.

Set and lighting designer, Nick Blais, uses lamps to frame scenes in different temperatures of light. This adds an extra layer of depth to characters’ decisions and helps direct the audience’s focus in such a tiny space. Blais’ work manages a feeling of expansiveness when there are only between 20-30 people in the room, including the cast.

My guest, Violet, and I, agreed that Aviva Armour-Ostroff’s performance was the standout for its delicacy. This is because, unlike the rest of the cast, her character gradually lets go of her sense of will in exchange for a more comfortable life post-epidemic. She is less and less herself as the play progresses, a disappearing act in real time.

Deborah Drakeford plays a depressive widow and mother with impressively unsettling results. She weaves together a vision of someone with no tolerance left for disappointment, at wit’s end, happy to dangle over precipices to remember what excitement is like. Drakeford also provides us with Human Animals’ most absorbing moment – it involves pins and a wine glass. Our attention lasers in on her at the expense of pretty much everything else in life and the world at large.

Carlos González-Vío fills the role of outlier with contagious zealotry. His character takes it upon himself to save the world when fear reigns and there is blood in the streets. It is because his neighbours and loved ones who are worried only about themselves and their own, think him deranged that he knows he’s doing the right thing.

Arlen Aguayo Stewart plays Drakeford’s daughter with a rawness and surety to her lines. Her aim is true when it comes to embodying the absolute confidence of an idealistic and untested twentysomething.

Both Ryan Hollyman and Andre Sills shimmer in their supporting roles as foils to each other, the former the epitome of charm, the latter a villain of sublime intimidation.

In terms of criticism, Violet and I also agreed that the play tries to be all things for all people. It is dense with dialogue, allocating equal space for the development of everyone’s individual dramas. Though the cast pulls this rationing strategy off through perfectly timed transitions, cutting back on the number of stories would likely result in a more memorable project.

In sum, Human Animals offers insights into the inherent strangeness of people while keeping you on the edge of your seat. It’s a rare prized instance of cake had and eaten too from one of UK theatre’s youngest leading lights.


  • Human Animals plays at St. Matthews Clubhouse (450 Broadview Avenue) from February 22th to March 16th, 2019.
  • Performances are Tuesday-Sunday at 8:00 pm. with matiness on Saturdays at 2:00 pm.
  • Tickets are PWYC and can be purchased online.

Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.