by Lynn on March 25, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, Canadian Stage, until April 3, 2022.

Written and performed by Daniel Brooks

Directed by Brendan Healy

Set by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Daniel Brooks has been involved with creating theatre since the 1980s, variously as a writer,  actor, director, teacher, founding artistic director, dramaturge and visionary. There is a spareness to his productions, a pristine “look.” There is a cohesiveness of the various theatrical elements—set, light, sound—that work together to create the whole world of his productions. His plays are rich in language, dense in thought and conjure a complex world. His intellect is nimble, his manner is usually calm and there is bubbling humour in his productions.

His present production, Other People, which he wrote and performs, is all of this and less. While he enters the space with a frisky irreverence, trotting in front of the stage, swaying and dancing with a breezy peacefulness, we get the full whack of what his show is about in his first line, said as an announcement: “I have cancer.” He goes on to say he has stage four inoperable lung cancer (not from smoking). It’s a punch to the guts of the audience who have respected and revered his work for forty years. We are looking at a person with a clear ‘time limit’. Other People is about what he did with 10 days of that time.  

Daniel Brooks was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2018. Eight months later he went on a retreat to a facility in Quebec to silently meditate for 10 days. As he drove there he felt pain in his side. He fretted that he would not be well enough to complete the retreat. If that was so, he worried how would he get help? What would happen if he was in the hospital? What would happen to his car and how would it get back home? It’s interesting that it never occurred to him that other people would help. Or perhaps it’s just the all-consuming idea of cancer in his life that prevented him from thinking past himself.

Brooks specifically asks for a single room because his cancer regimen is so consuming and he has to pee often during the night that he wants privacy to take care of all this. He is aggravated when a pleasant man, Tony Small, is assigned as his roommate. Brooks does succeed in having Tony Small moved but then frets that Small will think less of him because of the move, but offers no explanation except superficially to Tony Small. Brooks has nicknames for the other participants in his meditation group. For the 10 days Brooks looks askance at Tony Small and the others offering cutting observations and snide comments. One tries to regard Brooks with compassion and justify his comments with what he is going through, but it’s difficult. When Brooks does have a chance to get to know his group participants his comments are glib and lack compassion for them.  

Director Brendan Healy has created a beautiful, artful production. He keeps Daniel Brooks in a simple chair as Brooks goes through each day of the retreat. A projection is flashed on the back wall indicting the number of the day.  Each day develops and involves considerable effort to focus on breathing, thinking and meditating. But Brooks’ mind wanders. Occasionally he breaks out of the meditation to offer cancer etiquette to the audience. He refocuses and thinks of a woman with whom he had a relationship and how he loved her. The physicality of that loving is one of the strongpoints of the writing. His mind often wanders to memories of her. He thinks of anecdotes; Russian literature, focusing, keeping his mind from wandering; his daughters and their support after his diagnosis, and how they now return his calls. He is grateful. But there is rage, not at the cancer, but at other people who are annoying, or waste his time. Bubbling up through the cracks is his anger. The humour is cutting and directed at other people. For all his elegant theatricality and pondering on life, cancer and trying to be grateful, I can’t ignore that Brooks comes off as self-absorbed and disingenuous.   

Brooks presents us with so many ideas in his play to ponder: the idea of living each day, cherishing time and the people in that life, finding pleasure and reveling in it, and holding on to love etc. But Brooks is such an irreverent player of mind-games that I wondered if he was conjuring the line “Hell is other people,” in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit with regards to his own play Other People. I guess while Brooks’ mind was wondering in what seemed like a deliriously clever stream of consciousness when he should have been concentrating on his meditation, my mind wondered too, trying to remember the quote about “other people.”  

Daniel Brooks has stage-four terminal lung cancer. That reality makes me heart-sick. I wish his play did as well.

Canadian Stage Presents:

Playing until April 3, 2022.

Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, (no intermission)

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