by Lynn on April 8, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Coal Mine Theatre, Toronto, Ont., until May 15, 2022

Written by Annie Baker

Directed by Ted Dykstra

Set and lighting by Nick Blais

Costumes by Alexandra Lord

Sound by Andy Trithardt

Cast: Simon Bracken

Joshua Browne

Ari Cohen

Sarah Dodd

Colin A. Doyle

Murray Furrow

Joseph Zita

Nadeem Phillip

Kelsey Verzotti

A stunning production brimming with subtext and humour that makes us look and listen harder to the subtle clues of what is really going on. Kudos to a sterling cast and Ted Dykstra, their golden director.

The Story. A group of eager people meet in a conference room brainstorming to find the perfect story for a project. Is it for TV? Is it a film? It’s about something to do with monsters but not typical ones, per se.  We aren’t told. Sandy, the affable boss, leads the meeting, listening to every story. He throws out suggestions: first time at sex; worst regret; a terrible memory, and the accommodating group jumps in, eager to please and contribute. They discuss their personal lives; tell stories; make up stories; discuss the philosophy and minutiae of stories; they discuss time, space, and how they intersect. Discussion is spontaneous. It’s esoteric. This goes on for months. Sandy listens, offers suggestions, is often absent because of difficulties at home, and the group continues to tell stories and be devoted to the absent Sandy. But the dynamic begins to shift, subtly, and this being Annie Baker territory, nothing is what it appears to be.  

The Production. Designer, Nick Blais has created a stylish conference room with a shiny white table, pots of pens are placed down the middle of the table with writing pads marking each place with a white swivel chair at each place as well. There is a white board on either wall on which to write. At one end of the room is a wall of reflective glass and a sliding door in which to enter and exit the room. Alexandra Lord’s costumes for the cast are very casual and for the most part they don’t change. Sandy (Ari Cohen) sits at the head of the table and is ‘overseeing’ the room. He is clothed in an understated way, forwarding the idea that he is the most accommodating of bosses. He is unshaven, wears very worn jeans, a sweatshirt (hoodie?) and a ball cap.

He says that he’s “a pretty nice boss. I don’t fire people. Unless they’re complete assholes. You won’t work past seven or on weekends. And I don’t need you to say smart shit all the time or come up with the best most brilliant idea….” Ari Cohen plays Sandy beautifully. He is easy going, listens intently and puts everybody at ease. He finesses his group to dig deep and come up with a story, but cracks appear. There is subtle misogyny, condescension when he’s irritable, an off-handed disregard. The way Cohen subtly plays this shift is one of the many beauties of this production.  

As I said, in Annie Baker territory, nothing is what it appears to be so you become wary of every thing and what’s being said, especially by the person they need to please and impress. There is only one woman in this writer’s group—Eleanor (an unassuming and hilarious Sarah Dodd).

In the script Annie Baker writes: “It’s probably best if Sandy is played by a white man. I worked off the assumption that both Eleanor and Adam (a man of colour in the room) were hired due to pressure from HR). There is another woman in the play named Sarah (Kelsey Verzotti) is Sandy’s perky secretary. She gets the group’s lunch orders, provides the snacks, and knows absolutely everything that is going in in that office. Kelsey Verzotti as Sarah never tips her hand or gives anything away if bad news is coming. She is always smiling, cheerful, and absolutely compelling.

Director Ted Dykstra has created a production that is fast-paced but carefully modulated. Every single character listens intently to whomever is speaking, which anchors the audience as well. And in a moment of heightened silence someone cracks open a can of pop and the laugh just soars. Dykstra has filled his elegant production with such subtle wit, such perfectly placed ‘business’ that it beautifully balances moments of aching angst or regret. There are so many moments of quiet revelation that expose the inner characters of these people. Sarah Dodd as Eleanor lovingly reading from her childhood story book is a moment of sweet tenderness. Simon Bracken plays Danny M2 who is fastidious: his clothes are neatly pressed. His hair is freshly cut and smartly parted. He appears quiet and nerdy. As he tells a story about not being able to properly protect some chickens Bracken sits still except for his hands in which his fingers flutter for emphasis in the telling. You ache for Danny M2 as played by the always watchable Simon Bracken. Colin A Doyle plays Josh, enthusiastic, energetic and consumed with the hemispheres of time. But Josh is the only one in the room without an ID badge—something to do with trouble with his paperwork. And he hasn’t been paid. Doyle plays Josh’s concern delicately, but we don’t miss the crease of worry in his face.  

The production is full of the most detailed performances that have created one of the most cohesive ensembles I’ve seen in a long time. Bravo to Ted Dykstra for his clear, detailed and compelling production and his gifted cast for realizing it.  

Comment. There are two definitions of “antipodes”: 1. “The parts of the earth diametrically opposite —usually used in plural —often used of Australia and New Zealand as contrasted to the western hemisphere”

2: “The exact opposite or contrary”

Stories are at the centre of The Antipodes, whether they are told around a campfire or around a rectangular table, they are the things that bind people in their commonality, whether they are on the other side of the world, or contrary in their thinking. But this being Annie Baker, she makes us aware of the unsettling hero-worship the group has for Sandy even when they realize that they have been misled by him. She makes us aware that these people have tremendous faith that they will find the perfect story, but are quietly worried as things go wrong, a storm rages, and they aren’t sure about anything, except that they want to go home and sleep.

Welcome to Annie Baker territory where nothing appears as it seems, and she and this wonderful company make us sit forward and look hard for the clues.  

The Coal Mine Theatre presents:

Running until May 15, 2022

Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, (no intermission)

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