WHAT LIES BEFORE US by Morris Panych, directed by Jim Millan, with Matthew MacFadzean, David Storch and Wayne Sujo (CanStage/Crow's Theatre). At Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Previews from Monday (January 15), opens January 18 and runs until February 24. $20-$55. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
Trust Morris Panych to invent characters who teeter at the edge of tragedy yet make us laugh with their unintentionally comic take on a world that's filled with dangers.
In his latest play, What Lies Before Us, Keating and Ambrose, a pair of junior surveyors marooned in the Canadian Rockies, circa 1884, are waiting for reinforcements as winter sets in. Their only other companion is Wing, a Chinese cook who doesn't understand English.
Keating (Matthew MacFadzean) is an empire builder with a streak of racism, Ambrose (David Storch) is a somewhat gentler man who questions the nature of their work.
"Keating is lost in the idea of forging a new frontier," enthuses MacFadzean, explaining his role with his character's passion.
"He doesn't need details, but just believes in it. A combination of the naive, the ignorant and the enlightened, he doesn't feel he has to deal with the specifics, the things that bother Ambrose. The possibility of impending doom doesn't bother him if he can hold onto the concept of what he has to do."
MacFadzean, a fine actor and writer who most recently played the Gentleman Caller in Stratford's production of The Glass Menagerie, sees parallels for the two men in Beckett's Waiting For Godot.
"Fairly antagonistic from the start yet clearly tied to each other, they're initially a version of Vladimir and Estragon. But later Keating pulls their relationship in a different direction. Part of his naíveté is believing that he's winning Ambrose over, that they're becoming closer.
"In fact, they're more polarized, and Keating's feeling closer to Wing is also an illusion."
Wing is the enigmatic member of the trio, in part because he speaks only a few lines until a monologue at the show's end, and all his speeches are in Cantonese.
"I've already played a Chinese railway worker of that time period, in Iron Road," says Wayne Sujo, whose Chinese name, coincidentally, is Wing.
"One of the thrilling things about this show is watching my parents get excited.
"My mother only speaks Cantonese, and she's delighted that she'll finally be able to see me onstage and understand what I'm saying.
"She probably went through a journey that's parallel to Wing's in terms of language, and I think she'll see the show through his eyes."
Sujo, assistant producer at Buddies, had to build up a backstory for his character, since the script provides little.
"Wing is there to survive, to make a living and send money to his family in China. Brought up to accept his fate of a hard-working life, he's treated like a slave by Ambrose and Keating. Still, things were probably worse back home, and at least here he has a job.
"But he probably didn't expect to get isolated with two men whose words make no sense to him."
It can be tricky for Sujo, since the actor understands what his character can't.
"It's a challenge," he laughs. "The actor in me is always trying to listen to what's happening onstage but realizing that at some level that he's not in the play. At some point we're going to do a run-through in gibberish, which will help me understand what Wing's going through."
"Ironically, it's Morris's rhythms that stand out for me," adds MacFadzean, head writer for Theatrefront's The Mill. "He has a great ear for the way language can bounce, and yet there's a giant heart within it all.
"And it's incredibly funny, in part because of Keating's and Ambrose's clownish aspects. They never really listen to each other, each being his own island, and a lot of the laughs come from miscommunication.
"Plus, I get to stick my face into David Storch's bum," he smiles wickedly. "There's a play right there."