Human Animals: the venue is more intriguing than the script

HUMAN ANIMALS by Stef Smith (ARC). At East End Arts Space (450 Broadview). Runs to March 16. $5-$50. See.

HUMAN ANIMALS by Stef Smith (ARC). At East End Arts Space (450 Broadview). Runs to March 16. $5-$50. See listing. Rating: NN

Torontonians regularly complain about garbage-rifling raccoons and swooping, pooping pigeons, but thats nothing compared to what happens in Stef Smiths Human Animals, an uneven script getting its Canadian premiere by ARC.

Smiths play is set in a dystopia where animals of all kinds foxes, birds, mice, raccoons and pigeons are dying from a mysterious disease, their corpses cluttering lawns, parks and streets. Blockades have been erected, and humans are holed up in their homes.

In a series of short, staccato scenes, Smith gives us snapshots of a few harried souls. Theres anxious widow Nancy (Deborah Drakeford) and her idealistic young daughter Alex (Arlen Aguayo Stewart), whos just returned from a year away. Lisa (Aviva Armour-Ostroff) and her partner Jamie (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio) have differing views towards the wildlife situation. And the oddest couple is John (Ryan Hollyman) and Si (Andre Sills), who meet in a pub John is a possibly gay friend of Nancys, while Si is an enigmatic man who runs a chemical company.

Despite Christopher Stantons attempts to shape the material into something watchable, Smiths writing is too scattered and oblique to generate any dramatic tension. Scenes begin then abruptly end. Characters lack nuance. The dystopian world-building feels incomplete. Even as a parable for how were coping with the destruction of the environment, the play feels mind-numbingly obvious.

The best elements of the production are the location and design. The new East End Arts Space is a cottage-like building at the southeast tip of Riverdale Park. Near to nature and yet isolated, its a fitting place to stage the work, especially when fake birds thud up against the window or we glimpse workers in Hazmat suits outside.

Nick Blaiss atmospheric set, seemingly constructed from natural elements like wood and leaves, is also effective at bringing the outdoors inside, and his lighting adds an eerie element to the plays latter third. Stantons staging makes effective use of the in-the-round, park bench seating.

Of the actors, only Armour-Ostroff, Drakeford and Sills have mastered the art of speaking dialogue with so much concentration and commitment that you feel theres some sort of subtext.

Lets hope next time they get a juicier script.

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