Thursday, October 21, 2010

Canadian History X

Hate is perhaps the most dramatic emotion.  Which may be why Cherry Docs, David Gow's meditation on the redemption of a Canadian skinhead (now at the New Rep), lights up when its villain lets rip with one of his scary Aryan Nation tirades.  What's most unsettling about these outbursts, however, is that this Nazi bad boy - who could be facing multiple life sentences for the vicious (if accidental) killing of a man he calls a "Paki" - is anguished over letting his cause down.  "I want to keep the Movement OUT of this!" he even wails in torment to his lawyer.

It's at moments like this - when we realize that hatred is, in its way, a form of twisted idealism - that Cherry Docs seems to stir with a disturbing sense of intellectual freedom.  Elsewhere, however, it's somewhat thin liberal soup, although I feel very bad about saying so.  I hammered the New Rep for their last production, but they're a class act, and invited me back to see this one - and so I very much wanted to like this well-intentioned drama, which has been produced and acted with earnest, committed intensity.

But alas, it often seemed to me like a kind of lesson plan - although it's certainly a worthy lesson.  Indeed, what's most appealing about Cherry Docs is the educational value of its grounding of the message of redemption in the Jewish faith.  Yes, before you roll your eyes, Gows has dusted off one of the oldest tricks in the the melodramatic playbook, and made his two-hander a clash of polar opposites, rather like one of those anti-racist movies where Sidney Poitier is chained to Richard Widmark or some other psycho cracker.  In Cherry Docs, it's up to a Jewish lawyer (Benjamin Evett) to save the skin of this Nazi punk (Tim Eliot, both above left), but Gow is smart enough to tease out the irony of the situation ("In a perfect world, I'd have you eliminated!" the defendant snarls to his lone ally).  And it's a welcome surprise to see a play which simply tosses the old Judeo-Christian dichotomy of Old-Testament-judgment vs. New-Testament-forgiveness in the cultural dumpster where it belongs (I admit, The Merchant of Venice has something to do with this long-lived misconception).  Jesus himself, of course, was a Jew, and the Christian message of atonement and redemption is so intrinsic to Judaism that it's actually embedded in the religious calendar (which Gow references repeatedly).  Everybody who loves Judaism (as I do) knows this, but I'm often struck by how many Christians imagine that the duty to forgive  counts as their own special spiritual merit badge (however little they may deserve it).

But if all this makes Gow's play socially worthwhile, it makes it artistically a bit schematic - we can feel the playwright dashing about "tagging" this or that moral concept; and the same diagrammatic sensibility extends to the characters, too.  We can predict just about every emotional transition in Cherry Docs just before it happens, and yet neither protagonist seems to add up to a living, breathing human being. Gow's Jewish lawyer tells us bluntly, for instance, that he sees some hope of redemption in his creepy client - but we don't really see how; the author hasn't really written that in; but we appreciate that this is a necessary plot point.  And sure enough, the kid is indeed redeemed, right on cue.

It doesn't help that this capable cast has been directed by David R. Gammons, whose vogue among local critics continues to mystify me.  Gammons can be counted on to give his productions a harshly striking look; this time around we get his signature whiter-than-white lighting and a remarkable set that's been pulled back to a sharp vanishing point by designer Jenna McFarland Lord. (This is serious, dangerous stuff, a Gammons design always seems to say.) But like the playwright, this director often leaves his actors adrift - fortunately for him, he's usually working with very good ones, who can cover for him. Here Ben Evett and newcomer Tim Eliot throw just about everything they've got into their respective roles, and make them work, minute-to-minute, by being aggressive and vulnerable by turns, and relying on the occasional bout of histrionics (they break chairs, they throw things, etc.). These two convince us this is a high-stakes smackdown; but any sense of organic personality is somehow missing from their performances - and that, I'm afraid, is the job of the director and the writer. And without it, Cherry Docs can't really get beyond its worthy message.

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