Review: The Rules of Playing Risk (Theatre Orangeville)

by Lynn on May 6, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Streaming on the Theatre Orangeville website until May 16, 2021.

Written by Kristen Da Silva

Directed by David Nairn

Cinematography and editing by Sara May

Set by Beckie Morris

Lighting by Dan Palmieri

Costume Co-ordinator, Lisa Lahue

Cast: Neil Foster

Liam MacDonald

Erin MacKinnon

A heartfelt, hilarious, smart, thoughtful play and production.

The Story. Garfield is an irascible, irritated, frustrated retired fireman with high blood pressure, among many ailments. He has a nurse named Maggie who checks his blood-pressure every two days, chides him about the use of salt and wants to help him take a bath or walk more, which ever is easier. All of this is met with a smart barb and irritation. 

Then Garfield gets a letter from the mother of his 14-year-old grandson that she wants Garfield to take care of him while she works. The grandson, named Brandon, is on house arrest and needs supervision so Garfield is contacted.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Garfield’s son David never actually married his pregnant girlfriend, although he loved her.  David died before Brandon was born.  Garfield saw Brandon once, when he was one-year-old. Since then, nothing. No contact, no cards. Nothing.  

There is also a mystery about Garfield, when he was a much younger man, and his then girlfriend, Wendy. When Garfield found out Wendy was pregnant there were difficulties but he was going to marry her.  But life interfered and Wendy moved away with their infant son, David. Garfield didn’t keep in touch as much as he should have.

When Brandon does arrive it’s obvious both he and Garfield are in different worlds. Brandon has a cell phone. Garfield has a rotary phone (!) Garfield hardly knows what the internet is except it costs money. Both have lots of pent-up anger with secrets that both are reluctant to reveal. Garfield tries to be caring in his clumsy way and Brandon is searching for a father figure. Both know how to lob a sarcastic line as a means of self-protection. They develop a bond, a meeting of the minds, when they play the game “Risk” that Maggie brought them.

(No, we never learn the rules of playing Risk except to know that Garfield thinks it’s a game of strategy and Brandon thinks it’s a game of luck. According to Google it’s about world domination that involves armies and occupying countries. Not a game for wimps.)

The Rules of Playing Risk is about absent fathers and the effect that has on those left behind. The result is that the play is hilarious, even though it deals with serious issues.

The Production and comment. The streaming is not presented as a Zoom event. It’s Theatre Orangeville’s foray into the new digital age—it’s a combination play and film. It was performed at Theatre Orangeville, on a set designed by Beckie Morris, of Garfield’s rustic front room, overlooking a lake, in Perry Sound.  It was safely filmed without an audience. So actors are directly interacting as characters. I thought the resulting production works beautifully

David Nairn has directed this with such care. It’s not cloying or sentimental. The cast makes sure of that. As Garfield, Neil Foster is beautifully irritated as his quiet life is disrupted, first by Maggie the Nurse, then by Brandon who reminds Garfield how bad a father he was. Foster lobs the one-liners with perfect aim. As Maggie, Erin MacKinnon is as quick with a barb as Garfield and is totally no-nonsense. But she is also caring without being cloying about it.  And finally, as Brandon, Liam MacDonald is as wary and suspicious as any kid who people thing is a looser. Beautiful performances.

As for the play, I am mighty impressed with Kristen Da Silva’s abilities as a playwright. She writes smart, sharp dialogue that is rich and just zings. At one point Maggie finds a large salt shaker in Garfield’s kitchen. He’s not supposed to have salt because of his high blood pressure.

Without any embarrassment at being caught‘ cheating’ on his diet Garfield say: “It’s decorative.” Maggie challenges that by saying that he “doesn’t have a single thing that doesn’t have duct tape on it.” I thought that was hilarious.

But Kristen Da Silva also has a keen sense of how people think and behave. She knows that a after a person has a traumatic life changing event they behave differently. During the play Garfield has one of these events and that leads him to drop his guard and confide in Maggie what happened to him earlier first with the mother of his son and then his son. The revealing of these secrets came naturally, organically from the moment. And both David Nairn’s direction and Neil Foster’s playing of it was exquisite. Garfield is sitting in his chair and Maggie is sitting in another to the left of him. During the extended speech Maggie is rivetted to Garfield as he spills his guts. Garfield on the other hand, never looks at her. He deliberately looks out or a little to his left but never directly at Maggie, because the nature of the revelation is so strongly personally and so revealing of Garfield, that he daren’t look at her in case he gets a reproving look. Only when Garfield is finished with his heart-wrenching story does he allow himself to look at Maggie.

The same thing with Brandon. He carries around the burden of what he thinks people thought of his father—that he was a loser. He says to Garfield: “He was a loser you didn’t want and I’m the same.” He also carries around the constant presence of the ‘absence’ of his father. As soon as he got off the bus in Perry Sound, he asked someone if he ever heard of his father. Brandon is haunted by that absence. Brandon has been reluctant to explain why he’s on house arrest, but he too has experienced a traumatic event and when his grandfather reaches out to him, vulnerable, that releases Brandon’s need to tell his secrets as well.

Terrific playwrighting. Dandy production.

The Rules of Playing Risk streams on the Theatre Orangeville website until May 16: for tickets go to:

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