A Little Panych For Your Palette at DalTheatre

phil demers & hugh cape

I was thrilled to learn that the first DalTheatre Production of the season was Morris Panych’s The Ends of the Earth, a play that premiered at the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver in 1992 and went on to win the Governor General’s Award for Drama in 1994. I love seeing our future theatre artists having the opportunity to delve into the work of an iconic and contemporary Canadian playwright and I hope that this experience leaves them with an ardent interest in the theatre makers who live and work here, and a feeling of excitement at belonging to this incredible community. These eight fourth year Dalhousie Acting students have certainly made a strong foray into their season with this delightful Absurdist romp.

One day at a bus stop Frank lets down his guard for a moment and is noticed by Walker, and both are immediately convinced that they are being spied upon by the other. In attempt to flee from the horror each is sure the other has in store for him, both end up on the same journey, seemingly doomed to follow one another to the dilapidated hotel at The Ends of the Earth. Many scenes in the play are reminiscent of the tea party with the Mad Hatter and the March hare in Alice In Wonderland, where dialogue doesn’t ever connect in a way that allows the characters to understand one another and the seemingly minute, incongruous and bizarre happenings in these characters’ ordinary lives hold all the meaning in the World.

Frank is played with a beautiful sensitive earnestness by Hugh Cape, who pouts slightly when he is brooding, which is often, and it gives him the air of a very young, naive little boy unable to grasp the injustice of the World. He has captured a great paranoid and perpetually frazzled rhythm of speech, especially in the longer monologues. Phil Demers’ Walker is less distinct, which is interesting since it is Frank who compulsively tries to be invisible, while Walker has an inflated sense of his own specialness in the Universe. Demers has great bewildered intensity and unfocused rage which gives Walker a nice ominous quality and contrasts nicely to Frank, who appears to be the sort who might fall apart if he accidentally stepped on an ant.

Other strong performances include Erin Johnston as creepy blind Alice, who, like a lurker in a horror movie, seems to haunt the Ends of the Earth and Maggie Hammil as the Tia Dalma-esque psychic who pushes Frank and Walker toward their entwined destinies. Both Johnston and Hammil give performances well grounded in originality and specificity. The one aspect of this production that I found alienating, and not in an effectively Brechtian way, was how many characters slid frequently into the highest registers of their voices, seemingly as a shorthand to allude to madness or frenzy, rather than truly inhabiting it in a distinct way. It is also a challenge when characters, like Willy for example, begin full blast at the highest pitch of voice, as it leaves the actor with nowhere else to go for the rest of the 90 minutes and the performance becomes repetitive. Other characters, such as Astrid and Ms. Finn bring a languid energy to their scenes, which disrupts the mounting tension and steamrolling rhythm that Cape and Demers have established. There are some great moments from Cody Lockett, especially as the Detective Clayton who becomes the third paranoid pursuer, although I would have liked to see even more sharp urgency in the dialogue with his suspects.

Margot Dionne directs the piece with great use of space, with characters coming and going, appearing and disappearing around an imposing, if simple, set. There are some great physical moments interspersed throughout that give an odd and dream-like ambiance that suits Panych very well and I liked that the audience was not able to see all of the action clearly as, depending on seating, certain elements were obscured behind drapes. This intensified the sense that regardless of whether Frank was spying on Walker or Walker was spying on Frank; we were spying on both of them.

In all, The Ends of the Earth is an intellectually satisfying comedy with some commanding performances from young actors that I look very forward to seeing in their next production and in the future of the Canadian theatre.

The Ends of the Earth plays at the David MacK Murray Theatre (Studio 1) in the Dalhousie Arts Centre (6101 University Avenue) until October 20th, 2012. Performances October 19th and 20th at 8:00pm and October 20th at 2:00pm. Tickets are $14.00 or $7.00 for students and are available at the Dalhousie Arts Centre Box Office, by calling 902.494.820 or online at www.artscentre.dal.ca. 

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