PUBLIC ENEMY by Olivier Choinière, translated and adapted by Bobby Theodore (Canadian Stage). At the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley) until October 8. $29-$89. canadianstage.com. Rating: NNNN
The timing couldn’t be better for Canadian Stage’s season opener. Siminovitch Prize-winning playwright Olivier Choinière’s Public Enemy is set at two very dramatic family dinners. Don’t be surprised if, at Rosh Hashanah or Thanksgiving, bits of the play’s dialogue (beautifully translated by Bobby Theodore) and action rattle around in your head.
Matriarch Elizabeth (Rosemary Dunsmore) is finishing a casual dinner at her home with her 40-something kids Daniel (Matthew Edison), James (Jonathan Goad) and Melissa (Michelle Monteith). Draining multiple bottles of wine, they discuss politics, the decline of literacy, healthy snacks, conspiracy theories.
As is the case at most family gatherings, people sometimes carry on overlapping conversations, so often you can only make out a few words and phrases at a time. We also see through a doorway into a living room, where Melissa’s daughter Olivia (Maja Vujicic) and James’s son Tyler (Finley Burke) are, presumably, watching TV.
After the first scene, Julie Fox’s realistic dining room set revolves and, miraculously, we see the same time period played out in the living room with Tyler and Olivia; through the open door we see the adults carrying on the conversation we’ve already witnessed.
It’s a clever device that lets us know that there are many sides to a story; perspective and point of view are crucial. After a couple more scenes, one involving a frisky squirrel on a balcony (shown via another set revolve), we arrive at the reason for this particular dinner. And it in turn affects how we think about everything that came before.
Quebec’s Choinière, whose play Bliss received an excellent production here in 2012, is a challenging writer who’s unafraid to take on difficult themes. Here he seems to be exploring the anger, resentment and violence simmering beneath the seemingly ordinary family exterior. The Steven Truscott case – the man wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a classmate – runs throughout the script, as if to make us question our judgements of these characters.
The adults in the play seem set in their ways – they’re not going to change. It’s the children who are more vulnerable, and so when Olivia bites another character, or Tyler threatens, “I’m going to kill you,” Choinière and director Brendan Healy let the moments sink in with maximum power. Who’s the public enemy here? Who’s culpable?
While Healy’s production begins realistically – enhanced by Fox’s set and Kimberly Purtell’s lighting – it gradually descends into something more surreal. There’s a disturbing moment when Richard Feren’s oh-so-civilized, familiar score suddenly becomes dissonant, suggesting the disturbing scenes to come.
And the use of a video camera to capture and project one character’s hard-to-read expression on the set during the transition from one dinner scene to the next is psychologically rich and unnerving.
Healy gets nuanced performances from his actors. Goad, Monteith and Edison make convincing siblings who have long ago settled into their particular roles; don’t be surprised if their wisecracks and bitchy asides make you laugh nervously with recognition. Newcomers Vujicic and Burke are frighteningly believable; and Amy Rutherford has great fun as a lively character who appears late in the play to give us yet another perspective on the contemporary family unit.
But it’s Dunsmore, seen too rarely on Toronto stages, who emerges as the play’s conscience. Whether spouting off about politics, explaining her abandoned hippie lifestyle or trying to defend her favourite child from the others, she radiates warmth and intelligence. The play’s final POV is Elizabeth’s, and Dunsmore’s troubled expression tells us more about her fears and worries than pages of dialogue could. She’s haunting.