Stage Door Review

The Antipodes

Saturday, April 9, 2022

✭✭✭✭

by Annie Baker, directed by Ted Dykstra

Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto

April 6-May 15, 2022

Sandy: “No dwarves or elves or trolls”

The Coal Mine Theatre is currently presenting The Antipodes by American playwright Annie Baker. This is the fourth Baker play Toronto has seen in the past six years – The Aliens (2010) by Coal Mine in 2017, John (2015) by The Company Theatre also in 2017 and The Flick (2013) by Outside the March and Crow’s Theatre in 2019. The Antipodes (2019) is quite different from these three previous plays in that it has a cast of nine (with a voice appearance from a 10th) rather than the three of The Aliens and The Flick or the four of John. It also has an overt theme, whereas in the earlier plays the underlying theme would emerge only gradually from the characters’ speech and actions. It also has a clear satiric bent whereas her previous plays found humour in people’s ordinary awkwardness. The Antipodes is, however, just as mysterious as Baker’s earlier plays and with just as much attention to the quirks of everyday speech.

The overt theme of the play is storytelling. Baker presents us with   modern boardroom with a large table and pile of boxes of bottled water in the corner. Around the table sit eight people – White males except for one White woman (Eleanor) and one non-White male (Adam). Coal Mine has altered Baker’s cast by making one of the White males, Brian, Latino and by making the Adam not Black as in other productions but South Asian. In her notes Bakers states, “I worked off the assumption that both Eleanor and Adam were hired due to pressure from HR”.

How these people were chosen, what precisely they are meant to do and why Baker never makes clear. All we know is that the group’s boss Sandy (Ari Cohen) has had a massive hit with his previous project called “Heathens”, which we somehow imagine is something like “Game of Thrones”. The group is meant to brainstorm until it comes up with an even bigger story, one that Sandy hopes “will change the world”. Because Sandy’s project has to be approved by higher-ups and because the company he works for is big enough to have an HR department and to pay people for four months just for brainstorming, we tend to assume that Sandy is working on a series for a film studio or a streaming company.

When the play begins the group is tossing around the names of various types of monsters. apparently because Sandy had asked for something “monstrous”. An actual monster, however, is not what he meant, and definitely “No dwarves or elves of trolls”.

Sandy claims the room is a safe space, a sacred space, where everyone can say whatever they want, no matter how non-politically correct it is. No one will be judged. The one rule is that cellphones must be switched off to keep them focussed on their work and keep the outside world at bay. As it turns out all of these ground rules are broken, particularly by Sandy.

What Baker depicts in The Antipodes is the decline of an ideal into meaninglessness. Just as The Flick depicted the decline of the old-fashioned movie theatre from film to digital projection, so The Antipodes depicts the decline of a world where where everyone is free to tell stories to one where people have seemingly run out of stories to tell.

The room is filled with excitement when the play begins. Sandy, who has been acclaimed as a “genius”, says that some of the best stories in “Heathens” came from people’s real lives. To get the ball rolling, he has everyone go around the table to tell the stories of their first sexual experience, the worst thing that happened to them, their greatest regret. While the group share their stories in sometime lurid detail, Sandy shares nothing. We wonder whether he he is actually looking for stories from the group’s personal lives or whether conducting some kind of test.

His commitment to the group is questionable. Despite his rules, he has his cellphone on, texts when he wants to and answers it whenever it rings. All these calls have to do with problems in his personal life – something about various diseases that his wife has, events his twins must attend. Unlike the others, he has not given up the outside world of reality for the inside world of story-telling.

Eventually, he misses whole days and later a such a long period of time that the group thinks he’s quit. The oldest of the group, Danny M1 (Murray Furrow), so named because there’s another Danny M, has worked with Sandy before and says that if Sandy doesn’t think “the room is working”, he pulls the plug on a project. Though Sandy’s secretary Sarah (Kelsey Verzotti) keeps passing the group messages from Sandy that they are supposed to keep brainstorming, the point of trying to find “just the right story” rapidly vanishes.

Many people will see The Antipodes and think that it is merely about “the importance of storytelling”. In fact, the play is much more a critical examination of storytelling. Baker suggests that the very set-up of the group is a kind of perversion of storytelling. Personal stories that are real are only useful if they can be turned into a successful fiction. Personal stories are no longer part of a life being communicated but merely material to be exploited.

Sandy’s general distraction and eventual absence points out another aspect of storytelling. What is the purpose of telling stories if there is no audience? For a while the group seems to be happy entertaining each other, but soon enough the meaninglessness of the exercise takes over.

Yet, the presence of an audience can also have a negative effect. The most fundamental critique of storytelling comes early on in the action and should make us look look more closely at how every story is told. It is evident from the start that one of the characters doesn’t seem to fit in. While the others, as costumed by Alexandra Lord, in dress and posture are laid-back or even sloppy, Danny M2 (Simon Bracken), is stiff and reserved. He passes on telling about his first sexual encounter and his stories about the worst thing that happened to him and his greatest regret are so minor as not to be noteworthy.

After telling his second story that involves not picking up a chicken, he critiques the effects of telling stories in the present situation. He says that “Afterwards, I feel like I made something up. Even though I didn’t. ... I’m telling a story because I think you want me to tell a story. And then I’m trying to figure out how you all see me in relation to the story. And I can tell the way you’re seeing me is not the way I am”.

Danny M2 is pointing out the complete artificiality of the Sandy’s process. Danny M2 also points out that when a private event becomes a story told in public its loses its privateness and thus what made it significant in the first place. A story is told to fit the expectations of an audience. A story, which has its own structures and tropes, can thus falsify the real experience it’s based on.

After this Sandy calls Danny M2 into his office and we never see Danny M2 again. So much, then for Sandy’s rule that anything can be said in the room without judgement. Later we discover that Brian (Joseph Zita), whose job it is to transcribe everything said inside the room, also acts as a censor and does not transcribe anything Eleanor or Adam, the two HR appointees, say as if it, since they were not chosen by Sandy, what they say is meaningless. Thus Baker shows that the room is neither safe nor sacred since the politics of the outside world are allowed so heavily to influence what happens in the inside world.

After four months of brainstorming, the group comes up with nothing. By the end characters are recurring to literary critics to define what stories are – a sure sign  that they have run out of creative energy. Dave notes that someone says there are only seven types of story and names them. (He is referring to Cristopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories of 2004.)  Danny M1 says that someone else says there are 36 types of story but after great effort he fails to name them all. (He is referring to Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations of 1895). Perhaps deliberately, Baker has no one refer to either Robert Graves (1895-1985) or to Northrop Frye (1912-91), who both concluded there is really only one story that sums up all the stories humanity has ever invented. As Graves writes in “To Juan at the Winter Solstice”: “There is one story and one story only / That will prove worth your telling”. Thus a project that began with so much enthusiasm is broken by destructive forces from within and without.

Director Ted Dykstra draws highly detailed ensemble acting from his well-chosen cast. It is clear that he has made them totally alive to the multiple tensions underlying the actions so that what could have been a static situation becomes thrilling.

Chief among these is Ari Cohen as Sandy. Sandy tells the group that he learned all he knows from a genius who was a drunk and a bigot. Sandy may not be a drunk but his patronizing treatment of Eleanor and Adam and dismissive treatment of Sarah as a general dogsbody reveals a strong streak of misogyny and prejudice. Cohen shows how Sandy laps up flattery but grows stony when someone like Danny M2 undermines his ideas. While Cohen is great at giving his group pep talks, he is equally fine at the more difficult task of depicting Sandy’s gradual decline throughout the action. Cohen shows how this supremely self-confident man is already distracted by events in his personal life outside the room. With each entrance Sandy is more riled until, at his last entrance, he acts as if he has seen something monstrous and it has shaken him to the core. We never know what has happened but from the expression on Cohen’s face we see that it is something that is literally unspeakable.

Within the group are three men – Danny M1, Dave and Brian – who have worked with Sandy before and function as cheerleaders for him no matter what he does. The fact that there is a such a pro-Sandy bloc within the group is a problem that none of the bloc nor Sandy recognizes. Nevertheless, the three actors do bring out differences among these servile flatterers. Murray Furrow as Danny M1 is completely comfortable with himself and so tells the story of suffering an STD with a delight that feels out of line with its grossness.

As Dave, Joshua Browne is younger than Danny M1 but more authoritarian. He acts as a self-appointed deputy for Sandy when Sandy is gone and chides others as he thinks Sandy would. Despite this, his story of the worst thing that ever happened is the most horrific story anyone tells. Browne makes Dave’s denial that it affected him only cause us to think it did more harm than Dave acknowledges.

Third of this bloc is Joseph Zita as Brian, who is meant to transcribe everything that everyone says in the room. We learn that Brian was the “Sarah” (i.e. secretary) on Sandy’s previous project and he obviously relishes the upgrade from secretary outside the room to amanuensis inside the room. Yet, Brian is egotistical enough that he thinks he can choose what Sandy would want him to transcribe. While Zita well conveys Brian’s smugness, he is riveting in the most bizarre scene in the play where Brian, in some altered mental state, enacts a jaw-dropping ritual involving the tria prima (three primes) that Paracelsus (c.1493-1541) thought defined human identity.

The remaining five characters are treated as outsiders to this inner circle. As Sarah, Kelsey Verzotti literally is outside the room that she clearly craves to join. Although Verzotti makes Sarah unfailingly chipper, she also lets us see that constantly having to convey Sandy’s excuses to the group is becoming more of a burden. As Josh, Colin Doyle has no lanyard as do the rest and over the four months of the action he never gets one despite assurances from Sandy and Sarah that he will. Doyle shows us how Josh becomes increasingly perturbed by this situation but fears that if he complains too much he will be kicked out. Rather than personal stories Josh’s sole focus is the nature of time. This preoccupation causes the others, particularly Eleanor and Adam, to think about the subject and how it could relate to storytelling.

Eleanor and Adam are the most obvious outsiders, seemingly forced on Sandy by HR. Sarah Dodd wonderfully plays Eleanor as a middle-aged woman who is quick-witted now but perhaps on the brink of dottiness in the future. Eleanor and Adam are the only two who actually construct stories they have invented, which, reprehensibly Brian does not transcribe. Eleanor’s story of a monster whose heart lies protected somewhere outside his body suits her generally whimsical nature, but we are disappointed when she does not make a fuss when one of Sandy’s boys steals her idea of time for his own story.

Nadeem Phillip gives Adam an inherent gentleness and strength that the others, except Brian, cannot affect. He actually gives the group two stories. The first is the only one to use the concept of the titular antipodes. Adam wonders what if there were a person on the exact opposite side of the earth who looked like you and did everything you did but in reverse, what would happen if you met this person. This is the best story idea uttered in the entire play. It is also consonant with the theory of the hero’s journey expounded by Joseph Campbell (1904-87) that appears in all cultures where the hero must confront and vanquish his opposite, the embodiment all his negative qualities) in the underworld or on the the other side of the world and return home to spread the wisdom he has acquired.

Phillip also brings off a virtuoso turn in telling Adam’s second story where Adam rises from dead-tiredness to a period of visionary insight only to collapse. The story is basically that of Genesis with bits of Greek, Norse and other mythologies mixed in. The others are so punch-drunk with lack of sleep they think Adam’s story has saved them and found the story but they are oblivious to the story’s obvious origins.

Though on stage for the shortest time Simon Bracken makes a powerful impression as Danny M2. Danny M2 is the only one of the group to criticize the fundamentals of Sandy’s system and to outline why the very process undermines what it attempts to achieve. Danny M2 is an outwardly weak, inwardly brave truth-teller much like Avery in The Flick.  Bracken is excellent in showing how difficult but how necessary it is for Danny M2 to muster the courage to speak his mind. Bracken is so immersed in his character that he even blushes to a deep red during Danny M2’s speech.

Annie Baker’s play is ultimately an extraordinary paradox that one can contemplate for days after the cast’s final bows. While the play revels in the huge variety of stories we tell it also examines how stories can be misused and stolen and how even the act of relating an experience as a story never fully represents the experience it is meant to convey. Thus Baker has written a play about the limitations of storytelling that is itself a story. There is no way to resolve this paradox. Some say the journey is more important than the destination. With Baker the journey is the destination. All true theatre-lovers owe it to themselves to take this breathtaking journey that she has charted with such care.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Colin A. Doyle as Josh, Murray Furrow as Danny M1, Sarah Dodd as Eleanor, Ari Cohen as Sandy, Nadeem Phillip as Adam, Joseph Zita (on ball) as Brian and Simon Bracken as Danny M2; Sarah Dodd as Eleanor, Joseph Zita as Brian, Colin A. Doyle as Josh, Ari Cohen as Sandy, Nadeem Phillip as Adam, Murray Furrow as Danny M2 and Joshua Browne as Dave; Sarah Dodd as Eleanor, Colin A. Doyle as Josh, Joshua Browne as Dave, Ari Cohen as Sandy, Murray Furrow as Danny M1, Nadeem Phillip as Adam and Joseph Zita as Brian; Joseph Zita as Brian. © 2022 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets visit www.coalminetheatre.com.