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Written by Alec Toller, Mikaela Dyke, Daniel Pagett, Alex Paxton-Beesley, Paloma Nuñez and Anders Yates, directed by Toller. Until April 2 at Tarragon Workspace, 30 Bridgman Ave. Tarragontheatre.com or 416-531-1827.
The enterprising and chimeric Circlesnake Productions create shows through collective brainstorming and improvisation, working from various initial stimuli such as an intriguing historical figure (the 16th-century astronomer John Dee in The Queen’s Conjurer) or sci-fi (Dark Matter).
In this complex psychological drama, back after an acclaimed run in February 2016, they turn again to film/TV genre, here working in the vein of crime procedural. Set designer Bronwen Lily has transformed the top-floor studio space at Tarragon Theatre into a messy crime scene: papers and pill bottles strewn on the floor, clippings and drawings posted on the walls, and a body on the floor that the audience has to walk around to take their seats.
Lynne (Alex Paxton-Beesley) and Mark (Daniel Pagett) are the detectives assigned to the case. The play drops you into their investigation, as they exchange rapid-fire hypotheses about what happened to the dead woman, at the same time challenging each other’s professional capacities: He calls one of her ideas “Werner Herzog meets CSI bullshit.”
The play is both enacting and commenting on the buddy banter (and, it transpires, sexual tension) in all those TV franchises like Law and Order and Bones. Its higher ambition is to question the reliability of memory and of the stories we tell ourselves and each other about who we are.
This work is smart and uncompromisingly paced, challenging to you keep up. Scenes from other places and times are interjected into the main plot line, illustrating what the detectives are discovering but not immediately providing enlightenment, as when the dead woman (Mikaela Dyke) rises from the floor and plays an awkward reunion scene with her ex (Nicole Stamp).
At some points figures from Lynne and Mark’s professional world participate in the seeming real-time of the investigation, as with Anders Yates’s engaging turn as the so-over-it police coroner Blake: “Hey bitches. Mother of Christ it smells like a summertime garbage strike in here,” he says as he enters the crime scene. But other moments are flashbacks — or perhaps flash-forwards.
Wesley McKenzie’s lights help in establishing these changes, but some patience is required to allow the production’s conventions to make themselves clear — in particular that Dyke, Stamp, and Yates play multiple characters.
What’s the significance of the image of conjoined pentagons that they find all over the dead woman’s apartment? Is it just truth that’s slippery here (hence the title) or is this about making mistakes, slipping up? As the play progresses the upsetting connection between the crime and the people investigating it come into focus, leading to a superbly played, very moving final scene between the excellent Paxton-Beesley and Pagett.
Indeed this show is worth seeing for the performances alone: in all but one case (Stamp is subbing in for collaborator Paloma Nuñez) the actors created this material and they inhabit its swift moves from caustic comic exchange to angst-ridden psychological exploration with impressive confidence.
Alec Toller’s direction has helped the production move from its original, site-specific location at 89 Niagara Street (the address where, in the show’s fiction, the crime took place) while keeping its intimacy and intensity, though there’s one moment where the long rectangular configuration is handled oddly: having Mark leave a key prop on one side of the room so that Lynne has to walk all the way across in order to chance upon it feels contrived.
Bring a smart friend: this is one to keep talking about, and savoring, afterwards.