BILLY NOTHIN' by Sean Dixon, directed by Amiel Gladstone, with Matthew Payne, Gladstone, Meg Roe, Lucas Myers and Camille Stubel. Presented by Theatre SKAM at Honest Ed's loading dock (581 Bloor West). Runs to July 13 (except Monday) at 7 pm. Rating: NNNNN
Home on the range? No way. More like home on the asphalt. Billy Nothin' is a purple-sage cowboy story told on the ultra-urban loading dock of Honest Ed's.
Sounds wild, even for the cutting-edge Fringe Festival.
But playwright Sean Dixon is an extraordinary storyteller, the kind of writer who spins fantastic yarns but makes his characters as believable and understandable as our next-door neighbours.
It's the story of Billy None, a city guy who moves to a ranch and develops a horse-trainer persona. An accident forces him to confront both his earlier self and a half-forgotten love that tossed him like a cowboy off a bucking bronco.
"This play is very different for me, the first that isn't about coping with great tragedy and death but rather about coming to terms with living," says Dixon from Blyth, where he just opened the season performing in The Perilous Pirate's Daughter.
"When the play begins, Billy has a vision of himself that's changing. He's not one person but actually two in the body of a single man. But the way it's played out has nothing to do with the extremes of Jekyll and Hyde."
In a parallel fashion, the West of the play is a wholly imagined place, a landscape that's as unreal as the urban Billy's desire for love. That's why, says Dixon, it can be performed in a city setting.
Dixon's adept at conjuring up figures who live magical lives. In Falling Back Home, his human characters are intimately linked to a whole aviary of birds, while The End Of The World Romance begins with a boxing punch that sends a character halfway across Canada, and features a malevolent crow with human attributes.
He created Billy Nothin' in 1999 for Victoria's Theatre SKAM, which picked up a festival award for Amiel Gladstone's The Black Box at last year's SummerWorks.
A few years earlier, the group debuted here with Dixon's Aerwacol, in which a couple escape tragedy on a railroad handcar, picking up unusual passengers on the way. They staged it environmentally near the abandoned railway tracks by Cherry Street. The troupe's expert at turning any space into a viable playing area, a process the playwright likens to "found theatre, making it out of nothing.
"I'm called their playwright-out-of-residence," jokes Torontonian Dixon, a grad of the National Theatre School, an original member of Primus Theatre and a regular at Caravan Theatre. "It's not too bad working across the country, since we're all e-mail-culture people."
What's the attraction between playwright and company? Dixon notes that they share a similar aesthetic and an ability to capture a play's comic and serious tones simultaneously.
"And because they're into telling stories and also enjoy performing, they turn it into a celebratory event.
"It's always important to me that plays are meant to take place onstage, in front of an audience. The actors work together to do something to an audience, and the production becomes an event that's shared back and forth between them."
Of course that connection happens most completely when emotions are the glue.
"In Billy Nothin' I want to examine how love can change a person. When you're broken-hearted you become anti-social, and people tell you to get over it. But how can you when you're obsessed? You surrender all your social graces. The play is about how we can change ourselves for love, and sometimes go too far.
"That's Billy, who's lost his sense of self and therefore the respect of those around him."
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