A SUICIDE-SITE GUIDE TO THE CITY written and performed by Darren O'Donnell, directed by Rebecca Picherack. A Mammalian Diving Reflex production presented by Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander). Opens tonight (Thursday, March 3) and runs to March 20, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, late-night show Friday 10 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $15-$29, Sunday pwyc. 416-975-8555. Rating: NNNNN
Darren O'Donnell is tired of pretending. That's a tough place to be if you're a working actor and playwright.
"I was just fatigued," says O'Donnell, mostly about his three-year (on-and-off) international tour with Daniel MacIvor's powerful two-hander In On It.
"I enjoyed it, but I got tired of the whole acting and pretending thing," he says, a few days before his new play A Suicide-Site Guide To The City attempts to break theatrical traditions over at Buddies.
"A part of me thinks it's almost embarrassing to get actors to say their lines correctly. I'd rather have them say what they want."
No wonder his recent workshopped piece, Diplomatic Immunity, which played at the Rhubarb! fest, featured spontaneous onstage interviews with audience members.
"Maybe it's the whole reality show vibe or the fervour around documentaries, but I find it more fascinating to watch strangers talk about laundry soap than to see someone recite lines. It's more compelling than going to a show where there's a typical emotional arc."
In Suicide-Site, which he performs solo but opens up to his co-creators Nicholas Murray (sound designer), J.P. Robichaud (lighting designer) and eventually the audience, O'Donnell plays himself - up to a point. He says his age is 67. He lets us in on his paranoid dreams, his fantasies about committing suicide and even tells us when certain sections of the script were written.
One bit was penned on April 21, 2002, he tells us, and then another section was written on September 1, 2003. The most up-to-date part was added shortly after the U.S. presidential election.
"I think it captures how memory works," explains O'Donnell, "how one day I'll be lying on the floor thinking about how terrible life is and then suddenly I won't be. I'm all of those people at once. Identity is fluid."
Interwoven into the complex fabric of the piece is a scathing critique of society, from a look at the disparity between rich and poor to a courageous admission of ambivalence about the events of 9/11.
It has already played in Vancouver, Victoria and Edinburgh, and O'Donnell modifies it according to where he's performing. One of the most striking observations concerns an analysis of T.O.'s police headquarters' fortress-like design, preventing any sort of crowds from storming it. It's common to most cities he's visited.
"In Victoria, these bushes formed a moat, and Vancouver was impenetrable to any foot traffic. Even look at York University. The design came up from California in the midst of the 1960s, to accommodate tanks, just in case."
It's not surprising that his plays, like the racism-themed White Mice, seem of-the-moment.
"If people are interested I can e-mail them the most recent versions of my works," he says. "But even White Mice is still being performed. It was done recently at the National Theatre School and at Trent. Listen, I'd be happy if racism were no longer around, but I don't see that happening."