Stage Door Review

Public Enemy

Thursday, September 29, 2022

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by Olivier Choinière, translated and adapted by Bobby Theodore, directed by Brendan Healy

Canadian Stage, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto

September 23-October 8, 2022

James: “This is the end of civilization

Québécois playwright Olivier Choinière’s Public Enemy (Ennemi public) from 2015 is challenging in both form and content. Except for its audaciy, this play is completely unlike the previous play by Choinière, Bliss (Félicité), that Toronto saw in 2012. In Public Enemy Choinière chooses to depict a "dinner-that-goes-wrong", a situation so overused in American drama that playwrights should declare a moratorium on it, except that plays featuring it still keep winning awards like Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced (2012) or Stephen Karam’s The Humans  (2016). The idea of a dinner party that degenerates is an easy symbol for a society that degenerates. But Choinière has more to say than that and twists the "dinner-that-goes-wrong" topos in such a way that his play makes other plays on the theme look simplistic and superficial.

Public Enemy opens with the dinner already winding down. The three children of Elizabeth (Rosemary Dunsmore) – James (Jonathan Goad), Melissa (Michelle Monteith) and Daniel (Matthew Edison) – have joined their mother at her apartment for dinner and James has brought his post-pubescent teenaged son Tyler (Finley Burke) and Melissa has brought her pre-pubescent daughter Olivia (Maja Vujicic).

Tyler is already in the living room adjacent to the dining room and Melissa is just about to send Olivia to join him there because the adults have “grown-up” things to talk about. The adults’ conversation is interrupted several times by arguments issuing from the room where the children are. James chews out Tyler, turns off the television and eventually confiscates Tyler’s phone holding it up and proclaiming, “This is the end of civilization”. James tells Tyler to go read a book if he knows how to do it. Elizabeth has more than 250 of them to choose from.

Choinière knows the “dinner-that-goes-wrong” is a clichéd dramatic situation and deliberately undermines it in several ways. His most radical method is to portray dinner party conversation the way it really occurs. He therefore has at least two conversations occur simultaneously. Caryl Churchill among other others pioneered the use of overlapping dialogue, but to hear two conversations occurring at once is something radical because it is impossible to understand everything from both conversations.

As a critique of genre it is an hilarious takedown of the “realism” of on-stage dinner parties which are in fact so artificially orchestrated that the audience can hear every word every character speaks. Here, as in real life, we can catch only snatches of what the characters are saying. Elizabeth begins the discussion by claiming that Pierre Trudeau was a “tyrant” because of his evoking the War Measures Act. Daniel explains why Trudeau acted as he did.

The subject moves on to famous murders in Canada, which Bobby Theodore has adapted, as he has the rest of the play, to an Anglo-Ontario setting. Elizabeth thinks murderers should be locked up for life. Daniel, an unemployed lawyer, explains, to the objections of the others, that a person can be falsely convicted of murder. Further, he thinks that anyone in his right mind would not commit a murder. Even more controversially, he says he has read that the frontal lobes of murderers are different from those of ordinary people, to which James jokes that all we need to do is give everyone a lobotomy and there would be no more murder.

The subject then moves back to politics where James says that the Bilderberg Group, set up in 1954 to foster discussions to prevent another world war, is actually a secretive cabal planning to take over the world’s financial systems (a long-held far-right conspiracy theory). Finally, James and Melissa get to the most important topic. They want Daniel, who lives with Elizabeth, to stop stealing from her.

Just when we think the “dinner-that-goes-wrong” is reaching its height, Choinière undermines the trope yet again with a theatrical trick equally head-spinning as the simultaneous conversations. Julie Fox’s handsome set, placed on a revolve, turns to reveal the living room where Tyler and Olivia have been. Choinière then has the adults replay all of the first scene except that now the children are in the foreground and the adults are in another room.

We see that Tyler acts like a jerk and bully towards his cousin. He won’t let her sit on the same sofa. He won’t let her change television channels even though he’s not watching. He definitely won’t let her use his phone (which contravene’s his father’s no-phones-at grandma’s rule anyway). In frustration Olivia finally bites him. Despite being viewed as the villain in the fights with Olivia, Tyler never mentions the bite. Instead, on the balcony just off theliving room (the third part of Fox’s tripartite set), Tyler kills a squirrel, not accidentally manipulated by Edison, that Olivia had been feeding.

In the third scene the argument over Daniel’s “stealing” from Elizabeth has moved into the study. Daniel doesn’t want to reveal why he has his mother’s credit card. She doesn’t want him to reveal it either, but James and Melissa become so aggressive that, apologizing to Elizabeth, he says he needs it to do errands for her because she’s not steady on her feet anymore and has been falling down lately. Both Daniel and Elizabeth know that in saying this Daniel has revealed information that James and Melissa will immediately use to move Elizabeth out of her apartment.

Yet, even at Elizabeths’ request, Daniel, for reasons that may be selfish or perhaps not, refuses to hand the card over to her. To get it James physically attacks Daniel, the struggle continuing into the balcony where he pins Daniel to the ground and wrests the card from him as Daniel dissolves into tears.

In his final revision of the “dinner-that-goes-wrong” formula, Choinière stages a second dinner party, this one occurring one year after the first. This time the children are at the table and there is a new adult. This is Suzie (Amy Rutherford), who is Daniel’s girlfriend. This scene in which we see the outcome of the first dinner scene, is in complete contrast to the first. Instead of simultaneous conversations, the scene is a near continuous monologue by Suzie about the petty concerns of her life and how she can’t stand her mother or grandmother, nodding at Melissa and then Elizabeth as if they will understand.

It is noticeable that two characters say virtually nothing during this scene – Elizabeth and Daniel. Neither of the two seems able to stand or even look at the vulgar, self-obsessed Suzie, who, if her plans succeed, will be moving into this very apartment with Daniel.

There is another scene and the play stops rather than concludes. The opening night audience seemed to expect at least one more scene to resolve the conflicts of the dinner party, but there is none. On reflection, we understand that there is no need for a further scene. “Civilization” as seen in the microcosm of this one family, has come to an end.

Choinière’s play is incredibly daring. Though the play appears to be written in the traditional realistic mode, Choinière wants us to understand it in a completely different way. As the simultaneous conversations of the first scene should make clear, Choinière doesn’t want us to understand the play in the conventional way, i.e., by what the characters say. Rather, he wants us to understand it by noting the characters’ patterns of behaviour.

In the first scene with its competing conversations, it is impossible to understand everything being said. Rather, as if one were dining alone in a crowded restaurant, we hear whatever is spoken loudest. In the first scene James and Elizabeth speak the loudest and therefore nearly drown out Daniel’s attempts to qualify the absolutism of their views or contradict their conspiracy theories.

In the second scene with the fighting between the children, Choinière leaves it to us to see the parallels between them and the adults. Tyler unreasonably won’t let Olivia share in anything. He bullies her until she literally bites back.

The third scene melds the verbalism of the first scene with the physicality of the second. In the first scene Daniel was always the old man out, always dissenting from everyone else’s assertions. In the third scene he does the same, this time about personal matters rather than general social and political matters. He is bullied verbally and physically by the others but unlike Olivia he does not bite back.

The second dinner party may be hilarious because Suzie is such a flamboyantly unrefined character. Yet, the truth is that Elizabeth and Daniel have been utterly defeated. Once the play is over Choinière boldly trusts that we will review the action in our minds and see if the allegiances we had formed in the central third scene are still the same. If they have changed, he wants us to ask why they have changed. Considering the important symbol of Elizabeth books, Choinière wants us to consider why James and Melissa’s victory after the first dinner party has now led to such a feeling of utter desolation at the end.

Though written in 2015 Choinière’s play even more chillingly reflects the brutal world of 2022 and its shift to the extreme right and the extreme left where different modes of thinking and behaving are not tolerated. The play begins with an assertion about the tyranny of government, but the play demonstrates that ordinary people can enforce rules based on beliefs rather than facts and those who speak loudest or are more aggressive succeed.

Brendan Healy has beautifully shaped the action of the play and under his direction the acting is impeccable. How the actors manage to keep on track during the demanding scenes of simultaneous conversations is truly a marvel. It requires and receives the tightest-knit ensemble work you may ever see.

All of the actors who appear in both the first and second dinner parties are excellent in depicting the shift in their behaviour in the year between the two. Most obviously, Rosemary Dunsmore as Elizabeth is verbally and physically lively and vigorous at the first party but withdrawn and cowed at the second. Similarly, Matthew Edison as Daniel speaks in a mode of quiet anger all through the first party as he tries in vain to make his mother and two siblings see things from a different point of view. Later when James takes the credit card away from him Edison has Daniel weep so uncontrollably that we begin to think James has taken more from him than just the card – perhaps his dignity, perhaps his last shred of self-worth. By the second dinner party Edison portrays Daniel as so sullen and withdrawn that he seems to be wishing himself not to exist.

In contrast, Jonathan Goad portrays James as a self-assured loudmouth who won’t tolerate any undermining of his point of view, whether from Daniel or from Tyler. We sense that there is violence under the surface of his words and not surprised when it finally breaks out. At the second dinner Goad shows that James is more subdued as if he is trying to make up for what happened at the earlier dinner. He is also embarrassed that his son has discovered James’s many limitations.

Michelle Monteith plays Melissa as an ordinary, over-concerned mother at the first dinner, but when James verbally attacks Daniel about stealing from Elizabeth, she is just as vicious as James is. And when Olivia seeks comfort after Tyler kills a squirrel, Melissa gives her none whatsoever. At the second dinner, Monteith suggests that Melissa has quietly started following some loony fad since she insist on referring to dessert as a “meal complement”.

Finley Burke and Maja Vujicic are ideal as Tyler and Olivia. Burke captured the natural disdain of an older teen for parents perfectly, while Vujicic exudes the strange mixture of innocence and resentment that roil in children about to become adults. In the second diner when the children eat with the adults, both Burke and Vujicic show that their characters have changed. Burke indicates that Tyler has become more assured because he has cottoned on to the ways of his father and can best him in a dispute. Vujicic’s Olivia is no longer a little girl at the second dinner but watches the others for cues for how to behave.

Amy Rutherford, in a role unlike any I’ve seen her play before, is hilarious as Suzie. Convinced that she will soon be part of the family, Suzie awkwardly tries to mother Olivia, clueless that the child hates her. She tries to play lovers with Daniel seemingly oblivious to his indifference. Suzie has no notion of which topics of conversation are proper and  which not and reveals herself as a bully in own family. Rutherford is expert in acting out Suzie's complete disconnect between what Suzie says and does and the negative reception it receives from everyone in the family.

The one flaw in the otherwise immaculately staged production is the way that Healy portrays Tyler’s killing of the squirrel. It’s quite amusing how well Edison, as squirrel puppeteer, imitates squirrel behaviour. However, no squirrel would ever hang around on a balcony that long when strange humans approach. Over the past twenty years squirrels in my backyard always flee even when I open the window just a crack to throw out treats. Healy must seriously rethink how to stage that scene for it to look remotely true to life.

This peculiarity aside, Public Enemy is a real eye-opener of a play. Choinière has blended a critique of genre with a critique of society in brilliant fashion. I have no hesitation in saying that Public Enemy is one of the greatest Canadian plays so far this century. Choinière wants to compel his audience to perceive the familiar-seeming form and subject matter in demanding new ways. If you are up for the challenge, the rewards will be great. This is a must-see for all serious theatre-lovers.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Rosemary Dunsmore as Elizabeth, Jonathan Goad as James, Michelle Monteith as Melissa, Maja Vujicic as Olivia, Matthew Edison as Daniel and Amy Rutherford as Suzie; Finley Burke as Tyler and Maja Vujicic as Olivia with Rosemary Dunsmore as Elizabeth and Michelle Monteith as Melissa in the background; Matthew Edison as Daniel, Michelle Monteith as Melissa, Maja Vujicic as Olivia, Jonathan Goad as James and Finley Burke as Tyler; Rosemary Dunsmore as Elizabeth, Jonathan Goad as James, Finley Burke as Tyler, Michelle Monteith as Melissa, Maja Vujicic as Olivia, Matthew Edison as Daniel and Amy Rutherford as Suzie© 2022 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets visit www.canadianstage.com.