Mojo has moxie

Rating: NNNNNMOJO by Jez Butterworth, directed by Daryl Cloran, with Damien Atkins, Christopher Morris, Michel Protti, Mike Shara, Dylan Trowbridge.

Rating: NNNNN

MOJO by Jez Butterworth, directed by Daryl Cloran, with Damien Atkins, Christopher Morris, Michel Protti, Mike Shara, Dylan Trowbridge and Blair Williams. Presented by Theatrefront at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Previews tonight (Thursday, March 7), opens Friday (March 8) and runs to March 23, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday and Saturday 2 pm. $20, stu/srs/Equity $16, Monday pwyc, preview $15. 416-368-3110.

here’s a hypothetical question.It’s the first day of rehearsals for a play about small-time hoods involved in a gang war. Is there a better way to introduce the script than the traditional read-through?Definitely, says director Daryl Cloran. To get Theatrefront’s Mojo working, he had his six performers play Survivor until there was a winner. The last man got a $100 restaurant gift certificate.

From that initial preparation, actor Dylan Trowbridge remembers what it was like to be under the gun.

“I was the first one booted out,” he wails comically, “all because I showed up late for lunch and everyone else had already made their deals and secret pacts.”

Cloran, a long-time friend and collaborator with Trowbridge since their days at Queen’s nearly a decade ago, has no sympathy for him.

“When the shit hits the fan for these characters, they have to decide who to trust,” he explains over a rehearsal break. “It’s all about a pyramid of power, where first one person and then another clambers to the top and falls. Everyone betrays everyone else.”

British playwright Jez Butterworth’s award-winning 1995 script, surprisingly, hasn’t been staged in Toronto before, though a number of companies have had it on their shortlists.

Set in 50s Soho, it revolves around teen singing sensation Johnny Silver, who’s snatched from the hands of his promoter, Ezra, by a rival gang. Ezra’s twitchy mob fight for their lives while sorting out treachery in their midst. There are so many double-crosses that the play resembles a multi-level tic-tac-toe game played without the O’s.

“Mojo has the kind of stylized theatrical energy I’m attracted to,” says Cloran, artistic director of Theatrefront. The company has impressed local audiences with such productions as Sweet Phoebe, Our Country’s Good and fforward, the latter two both Dora nominees. Cloran, a co-founder of Trapeze Media, also copped the first Toronto Theatre Emerging Artist Award and was recently appointed Soulpepper’s associate artistic director.

“I like its speed, the heightened realism of the first act that moves at a clip because of the situation and the fact that everyone’s on drugs.”

But it’s sure a challenge for the actors, adds Trowbridge, who played a dangerous-edged Peter Pan at Shaw last summer. His Pan showed the world a placid, childlike face, but lurking in his eyes was a lightning bolt waiting to strike.

Here, Trowbridge’s Sweets is paired with the always-sharp Christopher Morris as Potts to form a semi-comic stooge duo who talk big but act hardly at all.

“We’ve got to find the shared rhythm for these two. To rehearse, we just keep the lines moving, almost spitting them out, bouncing them off each other. You’re lost if you think too much about intention.

“And we have to practise at high speed, making the words intelligible to the audience in spite of the added layers of dialect and British slang. At times it feels like we’re creating a new language.”

Showing up early for the interview, I’ve heard a little of the dialogue through the rehearsal door.

The raised voices are filled with increasing panic as words spill out at a rapid-fire clip.

And the hysterical giggle from one character is filled with tension, not fun.

For Trowbridge, Mojo is a return to the testosterone-filled world of lost boys he experienced in Peter Pan and a stage version of Lord Of The Flies in which he played the cerebral, menacing Simon.

The biggest challenge for Cloran is to give equal voice to the work’s gritty realism and horror and the humanity of the characters.

“There’s a quality of music-video energy to the show, but we have to find the real relationships and the dependencies among the six characters.

“The last thing I want an audience to feel is that they’re watching a knock-off of a Guy Ritchie film like Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels.”

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