Theatre legend Daniel Brooks — or a hero almost exactly like him, with his name, face, and background — has recently been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He’s quick to assure us it’s not the type one brings upon oneself by smoking, but the prognosis is the same.
Staring death in the face, he decides that to “die well,” he needs to attend a ten-day silent meditation retreat. It will allow him to calm the voices in his head and define what is really important.
Of course, for the neurotic Brooks, it doesn’t turn out to be quite that simple. In Other People, now playing at Canadian Stage‘s Berkeley Street Theatre, he unleashes a 100-minute-long torrent of speech to the audience, detailing just what was in his head during his forced silence.
Brooks’ magnetism reveals itself in his instant connection with the audience. Running out like a soccer player about to collect an important trophy, he indicates his nervousness in a frenzied dance. He addresses the audience directly from the get-go. He returns to us again and again, the bright house lights contrasting the dimness surrounding his more internal moments.
He regales us with “Cancer Etiquette” tips and reminds us of our own mortality. The advice is laced with both humour and acid; it’s entertaining and unsettling.
This laser-like focus on the audience results in a show that revels in theatre’s liveness and in-person nature, missing for so long. Being “here” takes on a double meaning: being in the room and being alive.
There are many “other people” in Brooks’ story. First, the audience, filling his palpable need for connection. Then, there are the family, friends, and lovers who dart in and out of his memories. These moments from his past emerge at a furious pace, repeating at the most inconvenient times.
Through Brooks’ mundane chafing against many of his silent brethren, we immediately see the title’s reference to Sartre‘s famous line, “Hell is other people.” Unable to learn their stories from speech, he gives them nicknames and focuses on their most annoying habits in a way he realizes is not inner-peace-approved.
He finds himself meditating on the importance of appreciating each person before they’re (or he’s) gone, warring with the inner child who just wants to scream at the unfairness of his situation. The concepts are messy, yet elegantly woven together.
Director Brendan Healey’s staging is simple, set designer Kimberly Purtell’s blank, raised square of a stage and a chair taking away none of the focus on Brooks, while emphasizing his self-imposed isolation.
Occasionally, when he finds himself deep in thought, shadowy projections of his silhouette and an echoing sound effect to his dialogue (Thomas Ryder Payne) give us a window into his mental state.
Brooks is Jewish (as am I), which informs a great deal of his questioning of life. His attempts to link the experience of having cancer and living through the Holocaust didn’t always land for me. However, I found the “Cancer Tribe” idea to be a fascinating extended metaphor, and I appreciated the concept that it’s okay to find joy amidst horror.
The boundary he creates between his actual self and his story’s “hero” at the beginning of the show is an interesting device. It invites questioning of the show’s reality. This concept wasn’t further explored in the rest of the play, though, and I found myself wondering about its purpose.
Also, while the length of the monologue was necessary to convey the extended experience of the retreat, acting as a meditation in and of itself, it sometimes fell prey to the same frustration Brooks finds in meditation: too much repetition in the attempt to recapture the magic moments.
Overall, though, the experience’s intimate feeling, Brooks’s impassioned performance, and his urgent subject matter make for a powerful evening. Any lack of resolution or lesson feels like part of the point; we’re here for communion in the fervent search for just one more day on this deeply flawed planet.
- Other People runs until April 3rd, 2022, at the Marylin and Charles Baillie Theatre (26 Berkeley St.).
- Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00PM, with Sunday matinees at 2:00PM.
- Tickets are $29-84, and can be purchased online or by calling 416-368-3110.
- The show runs one hour and 40 minutes without intermission.
- Canadian Stage requires proof of COVID-19 vaccination and masking indoors.
Photo of Daniel Brooks by Bronwen Sharp