By Anna Ziegler, directed by Philip Akin. Until Sept. 29 the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly Toronto Centre for the Arts), 5040 Yonge St., North York. Hgjewishtheatre.com and 416-932-9995 ext. 224.
“God, do you ever stop talking?” asks Tom (Tony Ofori) of Amber (Claire Renaud). They’re freshmen at Princeton, on a date, quite drunk. No, she doesn’t stop talking, and neither does he, for the 85 minutes of Anna Ziegler’s justly celebrated play, which premiered in Los Angeles and Williamstown, Mass. in the summer of 2017, just months before #MeToo erupted.
The occasion for the drama (this is not a spoiler — you find it out in the first five minutes) is a sexual-assault claim that Amber makes against Tom after that night, which leads to a campus hearing. The play reflects the heat around how such claims were treated on university and college campuses in the late-Obama era. But while those debates around consent and responsibility provide a framing context, neither they nor even the rape claim are really at the heart of what makes this production so compelling.
Rather, it’s the vantage it offers onto the experiences and psyches of these young people as they narrate what happened that night and talk about their lives leading up to the encounter. Ziegler’s monologues, dialogues, and characterization vividly evoke the complexities and intensities of social interactions and self-performance today among young people.
For those of us who are middle-aged or older, it can sometimes be difficult to accept the argument that things are hard for millennials and post-millennials. But they are, and this play boldly and sympathetically puts those challenges on display: increasing dialogue around the multiple facets of identity means more responsibility and pressure around embracing difference. These generations have done important work in opening up conversations around hookup culture (pressure to have a lot of sex and pretend not to care) and rape culture; this play is all about what happens when those cultures collide, and about how social media amplifies everything. So does alcohol: it’s clear that part of the reason why Amber, Tom and their classmates drink so much is to block out psychological and emotional pressures (yes, a lot of this isn’t new, but that point is that now we’re talking about it).
Ziegler does not shy away from representing the ways in which the characters’ ethnic and religious backgrounds shape their experience: Amber is Jewish, Tom is Black, and they are both hyper-articulate about how these identities have steered their lives. The Harold Green Jewish Theatre is producing this Toronto staging in association with Obsidian Theatre, and the potential to bring their audiences together to experience this bracing, timely material is exciting.
I felt some tension in the audience on opening night as the frankness of the play’s treatment of sexual experience became clear (not through depiction, but certainly through description). Because Renaud and Ofori are so completely believable in embodying their characters and so precisely in tune with each other, they brought the spectators with them. Ziegler’s script is often very funny, and this helps too; so does the precise rhythm and timing of the performances under Philip Akin’s direction (they trade off addressing the audience directly, with Steve Lucas’s lights isolating them at various points around the stage; and then sometimes come together for exchanges).
Akin conducts this show like a duet, such that beyond being compelled by the material, I was swept along by the performers’ virtuosity. It’s a reminder of Akin’s particular strength in directing small-cast plays that focus tightly on performance, as with his brilliant staging of Master Harold … and the Boys several years ago for Shaw and Obsidian.
The Meridian Centre’s Goodwin Theatre is an ambitiously large venue for this material, and the use of body mics initially seemed like it would be a barrier to engagement. But the strength of the production even manages to overcome this, with Christopher Stanton’s excellent sound design helping to suggest the different environments and subject matters (party music for the opening sequence, Bartok and Mozart when Tom’s talking about music).
Sean Mulcahy’s set design of a raised stone circle surrounded by stone pathways and strips of lawn perhaps references a particular outdoor location at Princeton. To me it suggests a Greek amphitheatre — a space where the public comes together to bear witness to the culture’s shared concerns. The circle also evokes the cyclical nature of the play’s structure, which returns us to the original encounter without any concrete answers but newly alert to the importance of the concerns it raises.
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