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vancouverplays review


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— Stephen Lobo and Francisco Trujillo. Photo credit Emily Cooper.

by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Haberdashery Theatre Company
Firehall Arts Centre
Jan. 16-30
$16-$33 or 604-689-0926

This play is one tough motherfucker. New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis dramatizes some days in the lives of a quartet of New York City addicts living one step (or drink or snort) away from utter disaster. It’s a kind of blues play—dark, profane and very funny, reminiscent in a lot of ways of David Mamet’s work. Brian Markinson’s Haberdashery Theatre Company production nails most of the notes, but likely won’t put to bed the controversy over its casting.

Sitting onstage in front of a wall of graffiti, percussionist Eric Banerd provides a raucous, violent soundtrack to the lives of Jackie (Stephen Lobo) and his hard-ass coke-snorting hairstylist girlfriend Veronica (Kyra Zagorsky). After two years in prison Jackie has been clean and sober long enough to be ecstatic about getting himself a job as an apartment building porter until he spots a man’s hat next to his and Veronica’s bed. He freaks out (“All I’m asking is for the owner of that dick!”) but she denies that anything happened.

“The motherfucker with the hat,” whoever he is, becomes a metaphor for everything wrong with their lives. Even when Jackie gets a gun and blows it away, that hat continues to haunt Jackie’s dreams.

Jackie goes for help to his AA sponsor Ralph (John Cassini), whose wife Victoria (Lori Triolo) is also an addict, and he and Ralph get some useful advice about the right way to live—and eat—from Jackie’s gay cousin Julio (Francisco Trujillo). It won’t be a surprise that Jackie comes full circle, back to Veronica at the end. But how he gets there and how it all plays out I won’t reveal.

Guirgis has written a black comedy of manners. These characters haven’t hit rock bottom; they’re still kind of buoyant, they have values and a sense of possibility often reflected with flair in their dialogue. Trying to convince Jackie to take up yoga, Ralph says, “I may be an asshole but I’m fucking limber, bro.” Victoria comes on to Jackie but he refuses to have sex with her, exclaiming, “What are we, European or some shit?” No, he won’t do it with his sponsor’s wife. “We have a code. It’s a fucked up code but it’s a code.”

The acting is mostly terrific. Victoria wears all her desperation on her sleeve while Veronica keeps hers locked up inside, but both actresses capture their characters’ toughness and vulnerability. Cassini’s Ralph is a lot slicker than he makes out, and one of the pleasures of the piece is our never knowing how much of his apparent sincerity is an act. Guirgis has written Cousin Julio as somewhat of a caricature and Trujillo—not helped at all by Beverley Huynh’s costumes—struggles a little until he finds Julio’s sweet spot. Lobo channels his inner schlemiel, showing us what a nice kid Jackie could be if he didn’t always fuck everything up so badly. Director Markinson lets Lobo yell way too much so Jackie’s tantrums start to get repetitious, but otherwise Lobo shines.

The controversy around this production was generated by the company’s initial failure to consider Latino actors for the play’s three Latino roles (Jackie, Veronica and Julio). That was a mistake. There are important principles here around diversity, fairness, openness and sensitivity with which our theatre community is wrestling. We all need to be cognizant of, and to act on, these issues to ensure the health and vibrancy of our arts, and to allow artists of colour ample opportunities to practice their craft and earn a living.

At the same time I believe there are other issues here besides ethnicity that should be taken into account. Those three characters are not just Latinos—they are Puerto Rican New Yorkers. That’s a very specific culture whose authenticity Vancouver actors of whatever ethnicity need to stretch in order to capture. The three actors in this production mostly did that for me. I’m sure there are other Latino actors in Vancouver (Trujillo is Chilean-Canadian) who could have succeeded in those roles as well. But would a Mexican-Canadian or Argentine-Canadian Vancouverite automatically be able to portray a Puerto Rican New Yorker more authentically just because of their heritage?

That’s my take as old privileged white guy theatre critic. Please read Manuela Sosa’s attached review, too, for a young Latina perspective.

Jerry Wasserman


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