Saturday, January 5, 2013

Review: (TO) Sudden Death / With Love and a Major Organ (Next Stage)

Tony Nappo in Sudden
Death (photo: Jacklyn Atlas)
Sudden Death Shoots and Scores
by joel fishbane

Sudden Death, the new play by Charlotte Corbeil Coleman, is so quintessentially Canadian that it starts with the singing of the national anthem. One of the plays being showcased at this year’s Next Stage Theatre Festival, the work is a striking example of the sort of theatre the festival was created to support. A brash and startling script is well-served by a crackerjack team of artists that show off the play’s potential; if some professional theatre doesn’t snatch up the play for some future season, then they aren’t paying attention.

Coleman’s script drips with the influence of her Canadian predecessors

Down and out hockey player John Kordic (Tony Nappo) is holed up in a seedy motel with a crème-colored suit, a few grams of coke and a team of inner demons bent on turning him to their will. He might just have found a way back to the NHL – but there’s a cost to glory that he might not be willing to pay. Kordic spends the entire play seesawing between confrontations with the ghosts of the past as well as his stripper girlfriend (Melissa-Jane Shaw), who may also be just one more hallucination brought on by too much of cocaine.

Appropriately, Sudden Death is set within the framework of a hockey game, allowing playwright Coleman to use the three-period structure to mirror the three-act structure of classic theatre. Two smarmy sportscasters (Andrew Shaver and Greg Gale) oversee the action and the motel itself is shoved into a rundown hockey arena that’s as dishevelled as Kordic. The metaphor remains so integrated into the script the play becomes an object lesson in the dictum of content dictating form.

Coleman’s script drips with the influence of her Canadian predecessors, George F. Walker and Judith Thompson especially (indeed, in both language and theme, Sudden Death owes much to Walker’s Suburban Motel cycle and Thompson’s early plays, like The Crackwalker). Her language is concise, her characters sharply drawn and she has wisely shoved her (anti)hero into a moment of desperation when, as the title suggests, he must fight to survive.

Tony Nappo brings Kordic vividly to life – it’s a great synthesis of the right actor for the right part. Big and brawny, we believe that he was once hockey’s greatest goon and he accomplishes the great job of making Kordic sympathetic even as we remain uncertain whether or not he deserves to win the game. 

Sudden Death is so impressive that other plays at the festival may pale in comparison – and indeed this is what happened when seen on the same night as Julia Lederer’s With Love and a Major Organ. Though this is another clever script by a talented female writer, the production came off as slightly amateur, despite the presence of seasoned talents like Martha Ross and director Andrew Lamb. 

Lederer might just be a budding Miranda July, but she needs a much tighter production that can help realize the full potential of her quirky world. Of course, don’t take my word for it: With Love… was a solid hit of last summer’s Fringe and the sold-out crowd seemed to enjoy themselves immensely.

Sudden Death and With Love and a Major Organ play at the Next Stage Festival until January 13, 2013 in Toronto at the Factory Theatre.

Read Joel Fishbane's preview of With Love and a Major Organ
Read an In a Word... interview with Charlotte Corbeil Coleman

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