Copy That at Tarragon starts strong but loses steam in the second act
Playwright Jason Sherman’s newest offering — Copy That — delves into questions of how the media that we consume is created, and how it shapes the reality of our world.
It tackles other issues as well, like how privilege — or lack thereof — impacts someone’s capacity to have influence. It studies how those who recognize their privilege can choose to wield their influence with purpose, and whether the choice to do so should always be theirs to make. The piece also addresses overt and systemic racism, which people are bound to confront in daily lives as victim, bystander, perpetrator, or a complex combination of those roles.
Sherman’s script is about four writers collaborating on a series of scripts for a television show in the hopes that it will be picked up by the network. Their work becomes enmeshed in their personal lives, which then impacts the stories — and characters — that they are writing for the screen. It becomes several stories entwined together: one man’s struggle to reconcile the privilege and power that he holds with the actions that he has had to take to be successful; one man’s recognition of the effects of his lack of privilege in society brought about by a single action taken against him; one man’s expectation that his privilege entitles him to be successful. Last but not least, we have one woman’s struggle to gain access to a voice in a male-dominated industry.
The first act starts strong. The set, costumes (Rachel Forbes), lighting (Jareth Li) and sound (Thomas Ryder Payne) immediately evoke the feeling of a writer’s lair: beat cards tacked to the walls, a mess of paper cluttering the desks, the dishevelment of the clothing of writers who have been going for too long on too much caffeine and too little sunshine in a dim room lit by artificial light.
Sherman’s dialogue is swift, punchy, and I particularly liked the way he adeptly plays with words and their meaning. The entire cast uses twisty verbal banter to bring the characters to life within moments of the piece starting. There is a dichotomy between those on the writing team who hold inherent privilege and those who don’t. The lines are drawn early on: Peter (Richard Waugh), Danny (Jeff Lillico), and Elsa (Janet Laine-Green) have the privilege in this room, and they sit in contrast to Colin (Tony Ofori), and Maia (Emma Ferreira), who do not.
These pieces set the tone for me in the beginning. The writers’ comparative levels of privilege is highlighted by Sherman’s dialogue, in Director Jamie Robinson’s staging, and in the status they each hold in the social hierarchy of the writing team, all of which is cleverly acted by all of the actors in the ensemble.
Waugh is riveting as the bitter, old-school, seemingly misogynistic Head Writer Peter. He rules the room of writers through force of personality and his control over what words will craft the message he wants. Colin and Danny at first appear to be on equal footing in the room, garnering comparable input on the work. This balance does not take long to shift as Colin’s input is undermined by Danny’s ‘concern’ over Colin’s lack of television experience. Maia is a wallflower, timidly attempting to provide input, and consistently talked over or relegated to the role of scribe by the rest of the team.
Laine-Green, as Elsa, is brilliant in the first half of the play as the voice at the end of the phone line, the omnipresent producer pulling the strings of the writers in absentia. Although Laine-Green’s skill as an actor is evident, when Elsa appears in person after intermission, the physical presence of the character in the room somehow lessens her impact. She loses the mystique of being the puppet master manipulating the work of the writers ‘in the room.’
It isn’t just Elsa that felt less powerful to me at that point. I began to perceive an overall decline in the intensity of Copy That as it progressed, which bogged down the remainder of the play.
This dwindling of the energy of the play comes down to an issue with the script for me. Except for a scene early in the second act when Colin (Ofori) heatedly confronts one of his fellow writers, far too much of the high stakes action and character development takes place off-stage. The audience is told, rather than shown, what is happening to the characters, dampening the connection to the drama.
In addition to this, Sherman’s initially snappy dialogue that I initially enjoyed so much seems to drop away. In the second act, it started feeling more sluggish. It felt to me as though his voice as a writer became lost as the play struggled to come to a fulfilling conclusion.
There is one last gasp of energy in Peter’s final scene, which is superbly acted by Waugh. However, except for that scene, by the end of the play, I found myself emotionally disconnected from both the characters and their fates.
Copy That at Tarragon Theatre is an ambitious attempt to offer a timely discourse on the roles of racism, privilege, entitlement, and media consumption in modern society. Unfortunately, for me, it sadly falls short of becoming a timeless reflection on any of those issues.
- Copy That plays at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace (30 Bridgman) until December 8, 2019.
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00pm and Saturday and Sunday at 2:30pm.
- Tickets range from $22 to $70
- Tickets can be purchased at the Tarragon Theatre box office, by phone at (416) 531-1827, or online here.
Photo of Emma Ferreira and Tony Ofori by Cylla von Tiedemann.