Stage Door Review
Saturday, April 30, 2022
by Michael Ross Albert, directed by Marie Farsi
One Four One Collective & The Spadina Avenue Gang,
Assembly Theatre, 1479 Queen Street West, Toronto
April 29-May 8, 2022;
Regency Square, Brighton, GBR
May 21-29, 2022
Pete: “Is anyone normal anymore?”
Michael Ross Albert takes us for a wild ride in his play The Huns, now running in Toronto for only ten performances before it heads off to the Brighton Fringe Festival in the UK. The play premiered to great acclaim at the Toronto Fringe Festival in July 2019 and was accepted at Brighton for 2020, but, of course, the pandemic put paid to that until now. The acclaim is understandable. This is the sharpest, high-energy office comedy I have ever seen that also exposes the dehumanizing effect of tech and modern work.
Three members of an unnamed IT company with an unnamed product, presumably software, meet in a nondescript office for an international conference call organized by control-freak administrator Iris (Breanna Dillon). The company’s offices in its new building have been burgled and four developers’ laptops have been stolen. This will delay the launch of the Gen-7 update that consumers have been waiting for.
With Iris are Pete (Jamie Cavanagh), who was present in the building when the burglary happened and Shelley (Cass Van Wyck), a contractual hire who was replacing Iris during her absence. Tech problems are present from the start when the three can’t get the flat-screen display to work for Iris’s PowerPoint presentation about the event. Iris tries to link with company workers in London, England (where the company CEO is located), New York, Houston and Montreal. Then everything that could go wrong in a conference call does go wrong – from bad connections, people pressing the wrong buttons, key people (like the CEO) not being present for the call to our three employees failing to mute their private discussions.
Not only is what Albert depicts hilariously funny but it is extraordinarily prescient. How could Albert have known in 2019 how painfully familiar audiences would be just the next year with the infinite number of glitches that can occur during conference calls or Zoom meetings? Just as Albert has an ear for natural dialogue, he also has a keen sense for depicting the increasing disaster of the conference call in absolutely the most realistic way. Now, likely more than in 2019, we laugh at what we see because it is so true to life.
Funny as these snafus are Albert has deeper sources of comedy to mine. The ongoing technical breakdowns during the call become an external metaphor for the the interpersonal and psychological breakdowns of the characters.
Pete wants the call to be as brief as possible because he has a plane to catch to go on for destination bachelor party before his upcoming wedding. His anger at Iris and Shelley increases the longer the call goes on while they clearly resent his rushing off and leaving them in the lurch just when the company is in crisis.
Iris, who clearly feels superior to her co-workers and lets them know it, is furious that a major disaster should have occurred when she was not there. She is also irked that while she was on leave she became a prime source of gossip, the general, quite believable rumour being that she was in rehab for OCD and cocaine addiction. Iris angrily denies this but when she finally tells Pete and Shelley the real reason, it raises a whole range of questions none of which Albert has time to explore.
Shelley has good reasons to dislike both Pete and Iris but she tries to restrain herself from lashing out for as long as possible. She knows she is more capable than Iris but is willing to take a subservient position since that is what Iris expects from a contract worker.
Albert’s exploration of the interpersonal animosities of the three is comic enough, but, while many playwrights would be happy to have captured this aspect of office life so well, Albert’s vision extends beyond this. Near the end of the play, Albert gives Pete a long disquisition on how technology has basically robotized humanity, destroying human-to-human interaction and ruining whatever pleasure use to exist in work. Albert follows this with an even longer lament for Shelley about how work in today’s world does not give meaning to life but rather seems to take it away.
Director Marie Farsi has reunited the cast from the original production and she has had them deliver the dialogue in the fastest pace and most natural manner I have seen in any play this year. When we add to this how seamlessly sound designer Andy Trithardt has incorporated the pre-recorded voices of twelve other actors with the live dialogue on stage, Trithardt and Farsi deserve commendation for an extraordinary achievement.
The three actors work as tightly orchestrated team. Pete (Jamie Cavanagh gives Pete’s desire to leave a suspicious urgency as if he wants whatever information he is hiding to come out after he is gone. In his big monologue, however, Cavanagh reveals Pete to be more serious-minded and introspective than we initially supposed.
As Iris, Breanna Dillon tunes her voice to its most piercing tone as if Iris seeks to dominate all around her through the harshness of her voice alone. In a rare moment of reflection Dillon sows that Iris can speak in a more modulated manner which makes us realize that the harshness of her business voice must derive from a general hostility to everything around her. On the phone Dillon is expert in showing how Iris disguises aggression as politeness.
Cass Van Wyck plays Shelley as the dark horse of the piece. Van Wyck shows that while Shelley may appear submissive and weak, she is internally fuming at both Pete and Iris and is having difficulty in keeping a lid on the pressure building inside. Van Wyck makes Shelley’s long monologue feel like the release of this pressure as Shelley finally says what she really feels about her work, her life and the bleakness of the future.
The Huns is a fantastic play. It is amazing both technically and dramatically and accomplishes more in only 70 minutes than most plays twice its length. Farsi’s direction of the dialogue is almost musical. The work moves both as a long crescendo and accelerando up to a peak after which there is a short decrescendo and rallentando to the finish. I would suggest that Farsi begin the actors at mezzoforte rather than forte to give the work a greater dynamic range. Albert’s play is also a mystery story and Albert has perhaps deliberately left this mystery unsolved because his focus is really the greater mystery of how people can live meaningful lives in the modern world.
We all wish The Huns the greatest success in its Toronto run and will cheer it on from afar in its Brighton run. After that, however, the play deserves a longer run so more people can experience this remarkable play and mark down Michael Ross Albert as a playwright to watch.
Photos: Jamie Cavanagh Pete, Breanna Dillon as Iris and Cass Van Wyck as Shelley. © 2022 Matt Hertendy Design Co.
For tickets in Toronto, visit www.theassemblytheatre.com.
For tickets in Brighton, visit www.brightonfringe.org.