Review: THEORY

by Lynn on November 5, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Tarragon Theatre, Extra Space, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Norman Yeung

Directed by Esther Jun

Set and lighting by Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Michelle Bohn

Projections by Cameron Davis

Sound by John Gzowski

Cast: Bilal Baig

Sascha Cole

Audrey Dwyer

Fabrizio Filippo

Asha James

Kyle Orzech

Anthony Perpuse

A bracing play about the dangers of free speech and the fraught world of academia.

The Story. From the press release: “Isabelle, a young tenure-track professor teaching cinema studies, tests the limits of free speech by encouraging her students to contribute to an unmoderated discussion group. When an anonymous student posts offensive comments and videos, Isabelle must decide whether to intervene or to let the social experiment play out. Soon, the posts turn abusive and threatening, leading Isabelle and her unknown tormentor to engage in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse that not only have Isabelle questioning her beliefs, but fearing for her life.”

The Production. Set designer Joe Pagnan has created a beautifully evocative set that represents Isabelle’s class room, her office and her home which she shares with her wife, Lee. That Lee is a woman of colour also adds another layer of intrigue to the play.

The students sit at a configuration of desks one behind the other. But looking closer the desks are really ‘longer’ desks upended so the students are working on a smaller surface. That they are upended desks perhaps suggests a world that is unbalanced.

Isabelle, played with almost a swaggering confidence by Sascha Cole, is a woman of her convictions. She talks fast. She knows what she wants and answers each concern with a short, sharp reply. She throws out the curriculum of films in favour of edgier ones created by women and includes one that the students object to because they think it’s porn. They are vocal in their objections that Isabelle does not moderate the on-line discussion group. Students are being harassed and insulted with racial slurs on –line and Isabelle does nothing.

Isabelle’s wife Lee is played by a thoughtful, tempered Audrey Dwyer until Lee realizes that their home is not safe from the anonymous student who is stalking and tormenting Isabelle.

Director Esther Jun keeps the pace brisk until one is breathless at the unraveling of events. The anonymous student hacks into Isabelle’s account at work and her personal phone number at home. Videos are sent to her phone. Slowly the danger rises as do the stakes. Isabelle is visited by a department official (Fabrizio Fillippo presents him as a reasonable man but ultimately not supportive of her) who is not there to defend her but to defend the alleged student who fears he will be expelled. The school sides with the student.

Comment. I’ve seen Theory in various incarnations over the years. This version is by far the best. Playwright Norman Yeung writes convincingly of the modern school system where teachers bend over backwards to appeal to students; try to make them think and assess; act with patience when they whine about every disappointment but in many cases need the prof to step up to the plate and protect them; students are reminded to leave the professor’s office door open. One student who visits closes it. Isabelle says nothing. My heart races—memories of years of working in a University setting as an administrator come flooding back to me. Yeung has also illuminated a university culture that does not defend the professor against a predator student. I sucked air for a long time and exhald slowly at the end of the play. A retire professor in the audience passed by and said, “Thank heaven’s I’m retired from all this.”

Terrific play and production.

Tarragon Theatre Presents:

Began: Oct. 16, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 25, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes, approx.

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