by Lynn on September 6, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

Fortune and Men’s Eyes

 At Dancemakers, Trinity   Street, The Distillery District, Toronto. Written by John Herbert. Directed by Stefan Dzeparoski. Designed by Joseph Pagnan. Lighting by Gareth Crew. Video by Vojin Vasovic. Sound by Alex Fiddes.  Starring: David Coomber, Julian De Zotti, Cyrus Faird, Alex Fiddes.

Produced by Birdland Theatre. Plays until September 8.

While Fortune and Men’s Eyes was first produced Off-Broadway in 1967, it’s still considered one of the cornerstones of Canadian theatre in the late 1960s. It is both poetic and brutal as it traces the six month journey of Smitty, a young man who goes from being an innocent in jail for the first time, to a cynical, hardened inmate.

He shares the cell with Rocky, a tough bully who offers Smitty protection and friendship. What Smitty soon learns is that he will have to repay Rocky by being at his beck and call be it for cigarettes or sex. Rocky assures Smitty he’s not queer; he’s just an opportunist. Also in the cell is Queenie, openly gay, manipulative and dangerous, and Mona, a fragile, sensitive young man who is ground down by the prison system but sees a friend in Smitty.

The play is an indictment of a corrupt, violent penal system that turns a blind eye to the violence and violation among the prisoner population and then ratchets up the tension when guards carry off prisoners to secret torture rooms to do further damage.

Playwright John Herbert knew where of he speaks. The fragile Mona is a stand-in for him. At one point Mona tells of being arrested when he is gang attached by some thugs who then turn the tables and say he enticed them. That happened to Herbert and landed him in jail for the first time. He was assaulted in prison. He was taken to that secret torture chamber and beaten up by the prison guards.

It was rather emotional to have the late John Herbert’s sister, as striking and distinctive looking  as her brother, sitting in the front row, riveted by her brother’s play.

Does this stuff go on 50 years after the play was written? I would think so. Is the play dated if it was first written about 50 years ago and talks about a particular segment of the prison population? Why should that matter? It happened to John Herbert and the  experience caused him to write a searing play about it, that has stood the test of time. At one point in the late 60s it was the most produced Canadian play. It has a resonance and still does. Herbert wrote many plays after that, a few were published, but none with the resonance and staying power of Fortune and Men’s Eyes.

 Birdland Theatre is a company that has produced some of the most exciting theatre of the last several years: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Assassins, and The Pillowman to name three. The founding artistic producer Zorana Kydd has a talent for spotting the challenging play and programming it for her company. Occasionally she also cast herself in them which is unfortunate as her real talents lay in producing. And since remarrying a few years ago she has hired her husband Stefan Dzeparoski to direct with varying results. Of the last three Birdland productions (Soulseek, Gruesome Playground Injuries Mr. Dzeparoski has fared well with only Fortune and Men’s Eyes, as far as I’m concerned.

Mr. Dzeparoski is a definitely a director with a vision. Nothing wrong with that. It’s when that concept gets in the way of the play that I get concerned.

For the most part, Mr. Dzeparoski keeps out of the way of the play. The space of the Dancemakers in the Distillery District offers challenges of its own. It’s huge. Hardly conducive to doing a play in which the claustrophobia of the cell would make any person go bonkers. Four prisoners live in what should be a tiny cell. But things being what they are in this packed theatre season, Birdland Theatre had to live with the space that was available.

Designer Joseph Pagnan has all four men wearing only sweat pants. Sex is always simmering under the surface. Pagnan suggests the bunk beds with only a simple mat on the floor, with some personal items of each inmate. Ropes of various lengths hang down from the flies, in which a weigh is attached to the end of it. The symbolism escapes me. Upstage a life-sized human shape with a clock for a face represents what should be a fifth character, the prison guard. In this production other members of the cast voice the lines of the guard. It saves money and works when various inmates put their arm around the ‘prison guard’, take a microphone handing down, and say the guard’s lines.

Rocky’s rape of Smitty in the shower is suggested in a stunning, emotional scene. You get the sense of the brutality and strength of Rocky and the powerlessness of Smitty, without any need for being overtly graphic.

Some bits of direction leave me scratching my head. An animated white dove is projected onto the torso of a character or onto the back wall. Is this symbolism for their once innocence? It’s confusing and doesn’t work. Many scenes are underlined with a sound cue as if to reinforce where the drama is. We’re an audience, we can figure it out and having those sound cues really serves no purpose and gets in the way.

The cast is honourable. As Smitty, the sweet innocent, Julian de Zotti is clean cut, trusting and ultimately reduced to being as brutal as his cell mates in very short, believable order. As Rocky, Cyrus Faird is all swagger and dangerous. As Queenie, deceptively disarming, Alex Fiddes has a wonderful fey demeanour, seemingly vapid and silly but always thinking how to manipulate the satiation. And as Mona, David Coomber shows all the mental and physical fragility of this brutalized man. He tries to keep out of trouble but in this bullying environment that proves to be impossible.

For the most part, this is a worthy, compelling production.

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