Review: "Theory" at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre

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Joe Szekeres

  • Chief Toronto Critic

The controversy of political correctness versus freedom of speech, in a university classroom setting which must encourage progressive thought, left me with so many unanswered questions at the conclusion of Norman Yeung’s ‘Theory’ now on stage at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. Along with the intersectionality of these two elements, the story is also graphic at times in language, themes and visual presentation of projected images. Did I feel cheated because I had unanswered questions? Slightly, as I really wish there was a talk back with the performers in order to gain further insight into the text.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy ‘Theory’. On the contrary, this terrific production under the intuitive direction of Esther Jun kept me riveted from my front row perch.  Periodically I had to stop writing notes out of concern that I would miss something. For me, ‘Theory’ is one of several plays that will probably merit a second look sometime again soon for its richness of subtext upon subtext in the script.

Joe Pagnan’s split level set design allowed for maximum effective use of space. As we enter the Extraspace auditorium, we see what appears to be a university classroom setting with four chairs stage right and the instructor’s desk stage left with a door. Tables which have been turned on their sides are found in front of the chairs. What was magical for me to watch was the creation of Isabelle and Lee’s apartment as the actors fluidly and seamlessly moved chairs and pieces around the stage.  The back wall became effectively used as part of the apartment setting which revealed a refrigerator, books, and various apartment knick knacks. The scenes in Isabelle’s office were a simple pushing of the table back about a foot. Clever use of space.

Sascha Cole is marvellously razor sharp as Isabelle, the young tenure-track professor who initially tests the limits of free speech by encouraging her students to an unmoderated discussion group on film theory. The articulate students in the class (Bilal Baig, Asha James, Kyle Orzech and Anthony Perpuse) are gritty, gutsy and highly vulnerable in their responses to some of the controversial films they are to watch in class. Ms. James, for example, forcefully and bluntly makes it clear she is uncomfortable with the thematic racial implications in some of the films.  Some of the comments made during the class and on-line postings did make me feel uncomfortable and ill at ease, but that is the point in the encouragement of progressive thought.

Two lines from the text immediately caught my attention: “Everyone has a right to speak, but not everything should be spoken” and “How can we talk to each other if we’re not allowed to say anything?” Regarding the first statement, Isabelle’s same sex partner, Lee (an intensely acute performance by Audrey Dwyer) warns not to push too hard when seeking the golden ticket of attaining tenure. The heightened tension in chemistry between Ms. Cole and Ms. Dwyer breaks as we begin to see cracks develop in their interracial relationship as the message board from Isabelle’s class turns nasty and abusive.

Regarding the second statement, Isabelle asks her university department head Owen (Fabrizio Filippo) for assistance in the matter of the unnamed student who appears to want to derail her at all cost. Mr. Filippo delivers a strongly admirable performance as he wants to help Isabelle secure her tenure and become a well-respected member of the film department; however, there is a plot twist in the conversation between Isabelle and Owen which I do not want to spoil for future audiences. Suffice it to say Mr. Filippo convincingly made me shake my head in disbelief, embarrassment and amazement in wondering if this kind of behaviour does go on behind closed doors of a university setting.

Final Comments: ‘Theory’ is a personal reminder of how important it is that we continue to educate the mind and soul, and sometimes there is going to be a cost for all of us in this process. Yes, there must be teachers who will be the ‘sage on the stage’ and the ‘guide on the side’. It is inspiration that will mould both teacher and student. But is there a fine line between being inspirational and being a renegade regarding education? For me, Isabelle is both inspirational and a renegade for as someone says near the end of the play, “Not everything has equal value. Some things are just dangerous.”

‘Theory’ by Norman Yeung continus to November 25 at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto. For tickets call the Box Office at (416) 531-1827 or visit www.tarragontheatre.com for further information.

Photo of left to right: Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech and Sascha Cole by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Esther Director: Director; Michelle Bohn: Costume Designer; Cameron Davis: Projection Designer; Jennifer Dzialoszynski: Fight Director; John Gzowski: Sound Designer; Robin Munro: Stage Manager; Joe Pagnan: Set and Lighting Designer; Jeff Pybus: Assistant Lighting Designer; Stephanie Williams: Director.