WHAT LIES BEFORE US by Morris Panych, directed by Jim Millan (Crow's/CanStage). At Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). To February 24. $20-$55, limited same-day rush and Monday pwyc. 416-368-3110. See Continuing, page 69. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
The pursuit of Canada's national dream - the railroad connection of East and West - has rarely been as funny, and ultimately as touching, as in Morris Panych's What Lies Before Us.
It's actually a tiny tributary of the nation-sized tale, focusing on two assistant surveyors, Keating (Matthew MacFadzean) and Ambrose (David Storch), lost in the Rockies with their Chinese servant, Wing (Wayne Sujo), hoping for rescuers from the outside world.
Keating's a racist, extroverted optimist, always fantasizing about women's breasts and determined to have a mountain named for him. An exponent of manifest destiny, he's a strong foil for the contained Ambrose, a sharp-tongued pessimist who questions the value of their work and does his best to escape it.
They constantly argue with each other while struggling to survive in the wilderness, disagreements coloured by Panych's clever absurdities of reasoning; their fights about God, empire-building and the nature of human enterprise are never less than entertaining. In fact, they echo the time-passing, tragicomic game-playing of Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett's Waiting For Godot, with the occasional Pythonesque touch thrown in.
There's another hint of absurdist theatre in the mostly silent Wing, who speaks only Cantonese and can't communicate verbally with his masters. Like the orator in Ionesco's The Chairs, he has the play's last speech, which might contain a kernel of truth if it could only be heard and understood.
The fine actors know just how to build the show's comedy, with a touch of postmodern sensibility here and there. Where the production falters is in Jim Millan's direction. I wish he'd taken a suggestion from Ken MacDonald and Robin Fisher's mountain set and paced the action with peaks and valleys rather than staying on an even plain.