RUSSELL HILL by Chris Earle, directed by Chris Abraham, with Earle, Sam Earle, Shari Hollett, Frank Moore, Mary Francis Moore and Robert Smith. Presented by Tarragon (30 Bridgman). Runs to May 25, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $25-$31, Sunday pwyc-$15. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNN
Chris Earle's Russell Hill takes some unusual twists and turns, but it's a compelling, always entertaining 100-minute ride.Loosely inspired by the 1995 subway crash, the ambitious multi-character play isn't really about the accident. Instead, Earle uses various genres and styles - documentary, autobiography, vignette and song - to make us confront issues like chance, tragedy and how we read or misread signals while hurtling through life.
Sporting a standard-issue maroon TTC vest and conductor's whistle in John Thompson's eerily accurate recreation of a subway platform, Earle narrates the play, occasionally riffing on public transit memories, most effectively in a scene where he recalls being verbally accosted by a car full of teens while waiting for a streetcar.
He also interrogates characters standing in for subway drivers. Obviously, this is an attempt to get at the truth, or at least the facts, but the device pays off only in one of the final poignant snapshots.
The rest of the play is taken up with disparate scenes. Some don't work (a sketch about a masseur seems included only so we get the line "something buried underground" - get it?). A corny but catchy nightclub song about Toronto seems added for its surreal value.
Others, though, are beautifully nuanced. Shari Hollett and Robert Smith play a couple of exes who meet by chance and replay their breakup scene. Hollett and Mary Francis Moore play tourists in Mexico whose late-night dip in a pool unleashes frustrations and violence. These, along with Earle's streetcar scene, look at how chaos can spark from a random word or event.
Earle, a comedy-trained artist who's got a poet's insight and ear - subway screechings are "the Tin Man being skinned alive" - knows that laughter and tears are interrelated. How do we process tragedy? Is it heroic, like the astronauts from the film Apollo 13? Or is it comic, as in slapstick?
Underlying everything is his question about whether we can really know anyone and whether we really see things as they are.
Director Chris Abraham mixes up the moods so the subway citizens (all white, mind you) come to stand for a cross-section of urban life, and Richard Feren's hypnotic score adds momentum and push.Transit talesRussell Hill will stop you in your tracks