BOXHEAD, by Darren O'Donnell, directed by Chris Abraham, with O'Donnell and Paul Fauteux. Presented by Go Chicken Go at the Factory Studio Theatre (125 Bathurst). Previews from Friday (June 2), opens Tuesday (June 6) and runs to June 18, Tuesday-Saturday at 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $15-$18, Sunday pwyc, previews $10. 504-9971. Rating: NNNNN
Darren O'Donnell is discovering that blonds really do have more fun. We're sitting upstairs at the Epicure Cafe, and he's happily chowing down on his veggie burger, extra ketchup for the fries. It's been a good week.
Let's start with the money thing. He's $7,000 richer, thanks to the Pauline McGibbon Award for directing that he just picked up .
His new play, Boxhead, directed by Chris Abraham, opens at the Factory Studio Cafe on Tuesday (June 6), and right now O'Donnell's pumped, having just come from a rehearsal.
He's working on and off on a novel. His selected plays are being published this fall by Coach House. He's also getting ready to perform opposite Daniel MacIvor in MacIvor's new two-hander, In On It, which begins an international tour this fall.
And, oh yes, there's the hair.
Burger bitten "It's strange, and kind of gross, but people do respond to you differently," he says about the new 'do, which he got to portray a furry white rodent in White Mice, his 1998 play that was remounted last month for the prestigious World Stage festival. Did I mention that White Mice is being mounted again this September at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace?
You might say O'Donnell has suddenly become the big cheese of the indie theatre scene. It's a notion, and an image, he'd be the first to laugh at.
"I've tried to sell out, but it's way too hard," he says, biting into his burger. "You know what? I don't even know what that means -- 'sell out.' I guess I'd have to do TV or something."
It'd have to be pretty unusual TV. O'Donnell's at the forefront of the city's avant garde movement. Translation: he experiments. His plays, like Radio Rooster Says That's Bad and Who Shot Jacques Lacan?, are a wild mixture of philosophy, rant, cant and vaudeville. Often performed at breakneck speed, they make you sit up and think, laugh and then think some more.
The nearly-impossible-to-synopsize Boxhead follows a young geneticist, Dr. Thoughtless Actions (Paul Fauteux), who awakens, Kafka-style, to find a box on his head, an unseen person (also Fauteux, changing his voice with a microphone in the box) narrating his actions and a metaphysical boxheaded alter ego, named Dr. Wishful Thinking (O'Donnell), who also comes with his own voice-over narrator.
"It's a fun metaphor," says O'Donnell about the boxhead image. "Almost all of us feel at some time like we're missing the point, like we're not seeing all there is to see."
He also points out that the boxhead has broader implications, about how we perceive reality and how much we can change our lives.
And finally, there's the personal significance for O'Donnell. Back in 1993, he suffered what he calls a psychotic episode that lasted several months.
"I flipped out and went wiggers," he says matter-of-factly. "It was like having a box on my head. There were interesting things going on. I'd see some interesting things -- aliens, for example. But I misinterpreted them. I tried to apply my former modes of perception and conceptualization onto this wackiness, and just got things wrong."
Pretty improbable Coincidentally, Abraham and Fauteux approached O'Donnell with the Boxhead idea just over a year ago. They wanted him to write an exercise for Theatre Columbus's Mayhem festival. O'Donnell complied, and the three reworked the experiment for Factory Theatre's Works fest later in the year.
In writing the final version of the play, O'Donnell says he's tried to see how "wacked out and fucked up" he could make things for director Abraham.
"I wanted to see how improbable I could make it all," he laughs. "It's pretty improbable that guys with boxes on their heads would be able to talk about metaphysics, right? So let's talk about metaphysics. Let's talk fast, let's finish each other's sentences.
"In the final scene, six people talk through two characters. There are concepts like cloning time, cloning echoes, creating echoless yells. These all seem improbable, impossible things."
Abraham, one of the surest directors in town, has risen to the challenge.
"He's working with solid lines and clear gestures," O'Donnell explains. "Because you can't see our faces, and because the text is so fast, the physical communication has to be very simple and strong.
"Chris has done some musical theatre, and in a way this piece has more in common with musicals than it does with naturalistic plays. There are motifs, it has rhythm and it's choreographed from beginning to end. We never let loose and just have a chat onstage."
Working on something so closely related to his own psychological breakdown -- maybe breakthrough is a better word -- doesn't faze the playwright. He points out that Radio Rooster and Jacques Lacan also "dealt with the time I went bonkers, in their own unique way."
Romanticise period But he doesn't romanticize the period, and isn't keen to relive the experience, even though he claims he could read minds back then and will objects to move.
"I wouldn't want it back," he says. "Not if it came with all that other stuff. You've got to handle it carefully. And I was reckless. I slammed through."