david storch & bethany jillard
photo by jeremie warshafsky
In the programme for Daniel MacIvor’s final play as Playwright in Residence at Tarragon Theatre, Cake and Dirt, which runs until April 12th in the Mainspace, there are no Programme Notes, by either the Playwright or the Director, Amiel Gladstone. There is no examination or explanation or additional insight into what MacIvor was thinking or feeling or what he “meant to say…” Cake and Dirt speaks for itself- bluntly and sardonically- and at Tarragon Theatre, it speaks with immediacy and directly to the very audience that MacIvor has intended to hear it. It is a ghost story, about a city haunted, perhaps, by its former Greatness, or at least its former Goodness. It is about a city that has lost its way, that has been made to look foolish, and hypocritical and materialistic.
All but one of the characters in this play live swathed in urban Privilege and luxury, and yet all are living desperate, miserable, lonely lives. Maggie Huculak’s Bryn has no one to talk to, so she berates her housekeeper. She is cold, reserved and repressed in a distinctly WASP style, flicking her judgments like daggers at everyone and everything, as though it were part of her duty of existence. She is at her wits end with her daughter, Riley, a former addict who she believes isn’t going to school and whose lies and manipulations she cannot keep up with. She drinks to loosen the tragedy of it a bit, especially when hosting a birthday party for her ex-husband Jeff (who brings his new wife Naline along), who she is, quite obviously, still in love with. Jeff gets uproariously drunk and delights in disturbing as much shit as the emotionally intense festivities allow, while his wife seethes in a burning rage he will have to contend with the following day. Things escalate faster when the loathed Councillor “Flip Flop” crashes the party with a plunger, and, despite his mother’s swanky connections, his powerful career and flashy lifestyle, it is revealed that he is the most fucked up of them all.
At the core of the story is a park. The park has recently been destroyed by the municipal government to make way for a concrete Town Square. Councillor “Flip Flop” shoulders the blame for this decision because he “flip flopped” his vote on the issue, therefore dooming the trees, wildlife and the spirit of “Little Bob,” a homeless man who died there who Nina (Bryn’s housekeeper) considers to be the park’s protector. It is Jeff who is continually outraged about the loss of the park. He yells about it drunkenly throughout his birthday party, but his words seem to just evaporate into space. Even the debate surrounding the need or want of green space is dead. Jeff is the only person in the play who hasn’t resigned himself to the inevitable concrete Town Square. Naline would like to see the ineffectual streetcars disappear as well because Toronto is “a city not a theme park,” yet Jeff’s anger suggests that he feels guilt over the loss of a little bit more of nature to ever-expanding urban, concrete sprawl. He wants to leave, to find somewhere that’s a little more green, but Naline is adamant, with venom-like ferocity, that there is no way in Hell that she would be caught DEAD that far from the doors of Holt Renfrew. Jeff is stuck between his nearly entirely eroded ideals and his love of nice things, expensive things, comfortable things, and hot, sexy things. Jeff, in all his drunken tabletop dancing, his bravado and pretentious opinions of Andy Warhol, his chant for cocaine and his dorky dad gimmicks with Riley, stands dishevelled and hungover as the Everyman of Toronto. And that is hilarious or tragic, or both, depending on your perspective.
David Storch is magnetic as Jeff, he makes him entirely likeable, even when he is being a complete asshole. Watching Storch dance around like a lunatic with utter abandon is joyful and hilarious. It is immediately clear why Huculak’s Bryn is still so drawn to him, as we see him breathe a little more life into her, from the moment he enters the stage. It is also immediately clear how he makes Riley perpetually roll her eyes, but also that he loves her with unconditional intensity, despite the fact that he has no idea how to really communicate with her. His relationship with Laara Sadiq’s Naline is more complex. Their attraction to one another is nearly entirely physical and Jeff seems to almost try to erase the emotional, intellectual and psychological depths of his personality just to keep their relationship sailing smoothly along the surface. As long as everything can be “fine”, Jeff and Naline will survive. Bethany Jillard combines the perfect amount of street smart savvy, dark flirtatiousness, coy, biting sarcasm and just a hint of vulnerability to give Riley the edge over her clueless parents, but still suggests that something in her is irrevocably broken. Jillard knows how to infuse MacIvor’s rebellious young female characters with grit, humanity and spunk that makes the audience root for them. Patrick Kwok-Choon’s Councillor Flip Flop is as slippery as his name suggests, and Kwok-Choon makes him a fun character to loathe. Smarmy, entitled, arrogant and defeatist, Flip Flop represents many of the most frustrating personality traits for an elected official- ones that Torontonians have become much too accustomed to dealing with at City Hall. Maria Vacratsis plays Nina, the only working class character in the play, as a Reality Check for Bryn and Jeff, but with a heart of gold for Riley. The moments where they speak in Greek together are the play’s most tender.
Amiel Gladstone’s direction made me wonder how specific MacIvor had been in his stage directions, as the play’s dark sparseness, and the music choices during scene transitions, with overlapping monologues, all felt distinctly MacIvor to me. The pacing of the play, especially the vigorous third scene, is meticulous and builds the tensions to their most intense and absurd, and then smacks us with an unexpected flip flop at the end.
Critics and audience members have been polarized in their point of view of this play- some getting more defensive regarding MacIvor’s portrayal of Toronto than others. As a Nova Scotian who loves Toronto very much, I feel like MacIvor and I see this city from a similar perspective, and therefore, that I have the intimacy with Toronto needed to recognize her here, but also the distance to make room for the humour. At the performance I attended, near the end of the play, a woman behind me suddenly gasped loudly and randomly, “JIAN GHOMESHI!” So, it’s clear that Cake and Dirt has hit a nerve and captured an immediate essence of the state of our city today, and I think our reaction to MacIvor’s play is often more telling of what kind of Torontonian we are than a true reflection of the play— and that is fascinating.
Cake and Dirt plays at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace (30 Bridgman Avenue) until April 12th. For tickets please go online, call the box office at 416.531-1827 or visit the box office.