by Lynn on March 12, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Daniel MacIvor
Directed by Amiel Gladstone
Costumes by Charlotte Dean
Sound by Verne Good
Lighting and set by Kimberly Purtell
Starring: Maggie Huculak
Bethany Jillard
Patrick Kwok-Choon
Laara Sadiq
David Storch
Maria Vacratsis

One of Daniel MacIvor’s most provocative plays. Sly, annoying, and surprising when you least expect it.

The Story. Riley is our narrator. She is 26, spoiled, entitled and self-absorbed. She has two cell-phones, one of which records everything. She laments the disappearance of a local park to make way for re-development. Her mother, Bryn, is making a fiftieth birthday party for her (Riley’s) father, Jeff, (Bryn’s ex-husband). Matters get rowdy. Jeff gets drunk. His second wife, Naline gets angry. The nanny/housekeeper Nina serves drinks, smart remarks and her specialty cake. She also dispenses take-home containers of the confection to the guests, Riley being one who gets a container. An uninvited guest arrives and gets into a fight with Jeff, over the very park that is disappearing to development. Things spiral out of control and people who shouldn’t sleep with one another, do.

The Production. There is a heightened sense of the farcical and absurd in Cake and Dirt and director Amiel Gladstone’s production builds on that. An illuminated spindly tree in a ball of earth is our first image. The park will disappear and this sad tree is the substitute in Kimberly Purtell’s spare set. Later, in Bryn’s apartment, a simple white counter/table and padded stools suggests her rich lifestyle. Riley comes from privilege and as played by Bethany Jillard, she has the attitude that proves it. Riley has an impressive smugness, thanks to Jillard’s performance; a tight smile almost a sneer. She knows how to use a pause to set up a joke. And she knows lots of secrets which she keeps until they are needed, making her mysterious.

The dialogue is deliberately, maddeningly repetitious with characters repeating every line said to them as a question back to the original speaker. The cast handles this dialogue with deadpan seriousness, certainly in the case of Maggie Huculak as Bryn. Her voice is low and her face is inexpressive as she questions Nina, the housekeeper about whose cake she is serving (“my cake (Bryn’s) or “her cake” (Nina’s). Bryn is imperious and rather compelling with that quietly growling sounding voice; her deliberate lack of warmth and her thrust and parry with Nina. Kudo’s to Maria Vacratsis as Nina, who can thrust and parry with the best of them. The elliptical dialogue is often delivered with an increasing emotional frustration. This is certainly true of David Storch as Jeff. As Jeff gets drunker and drunker, and is put in an awkward position by the intruder to his party, Storch’s stage antics get broader and broader. His voice rises. It’s shrill. It’s a masterful performance.

Comment. This is a play unlike any other of MacIvor’s work He is a master story-teller, gently weaving information that builds and builds a story. In much of his previous work it was like watching a spider slowly weave a web that catches us in it, trapped.

But Cake and Dirt takes a different tack. With his endlessly repeated lines that may vary slightly, that are then rephrased as a question, it seems as if MacIvor is creating a bitchy farce or a play that is surreal. MacIvor still drops clues in his narrative, but they are dropped as subtly as if flicking lint off a lapel. Before you know it the tone changes and all those dropped clues catch you unawares. Characters have ideas and presumptions about other characters but only the audience knows the truth because of all those sly clues. While the structure of Cake and Dirt is different from other MacIvor plays, the end result, the “gotcha moment,” is still there.

MacIvor has said in interviews that he is infuriated by how venal politicians are ruining cities and destroying green spaces. He has also said that these characters are particularly unappealing. True, but as played by this cast they are compelling.

Has he made his case for what is happening to cities in his play? Hard to tell. In truth I don’t believe any character cares a damn about the lost park. Does that mean that Cake and Dirt doesn’t work? Not at all. It’s written by a playwright who is always changing and experimenting with style and form. MacIvor is one of our leading playwrights who is going in another direction. Cake and Dirt is worth it to go along for the ride.

Produced by Tarragon Theatre.

Opened: March 11, 2015
Closes: April 15, 2015
Cast: 6: 2 men, 4 women
Running Time: 90 minutes.

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