(L-R) Billy Petrovski (as Dago-Czech), Brandon Coffey (as Zach) and David Coomber (as Clint). Photo by Sophie Giraud.
Bullet for Adolf is not set during the Second World War, there are no momentous last words before the firing squad, and the audience doesn’t leave with a new life lesson nor a desire to take part in some sort of activism. However, when we left Hart House Theatre last night, we were still thinking about Bullet for Adolf, otherwise known around town as “that Woody Harrelson show” (Harrelson co-wrote and directed). But instead of feeling a Schindler’s List–like haze, we were energized and surprised by how a decades-old firearm that might have killed the Führer could inspire such funny and entertaining hijinks.
The play has been years in the making: Harrelson co-wrote the script with Frankie Hyman, who he met in the summer of 1983 while in Houston doing construction work, making money before moving to New York City with his best friend. Bullet for Adolf has an almost identical setup⎯Zach (Brandon Coffey) and Clint (David Coomber) are best friends from Indiana who drove to Houston to get construction jobs with a friend of Zach’s grandfather, Jurgen (Thomas Gough), a German immigrant who is also the father of Zach’s former love interest, Batina (Vanessa Smythe). They meet their new co-worker (and, shortly thereafter, roommate) Frankie (Ronnie Rowe), his best friend and “brother” Dago-Czech (Billy Petrovski). And when Frankie falls for an ad exec, Jackie (Tashieka McTaggart), she and her friend Shareeta (Meghan Swaby) become the final additions to the crew. The first act has little action, more context, and a whole lot of gags, until Batina’s torturously awkward 18th birthday party⎯when a prized antique of Jurgen’s goes missing, and issues of race, trust, friendship, and prejudice come to the surface.
Well, kind of.
Though Harrelson is no stranger to the dramatic, this play shows his fervour for the funny. The bulk of the action revolves around quips, banter, and gags, and what would usually constitute the meat of a play⎯character development, plot twists, a climax, and thematic lines⎯takes a backseat. A near-brawl spurred by racial tensions between Jurgen, Jackie, Shareeta, and Dago-Czech fizzles with an impromptu “Happy Birthday” jam session; the reveal of the carbine culprit comes and goes without any long-lasting consequences; and the play ends with everyone holding hands and praying around a picnic lunch. (No, really.) The full title is actually Bullet for Adolf (Almost a Comedy), and has the characters dealing with racial prejudices in Ronald Reagan’s America, but we think the matter doesn’t delve quite so deep into those issues as to warrant the “almost.” To us, this farce is a full-on comedic crusade.
Which is fine. Harrelson himself has openly admitted that the intention behind Bullet for Adolf is to make people laugh, and that it does, with impeccable timing and some truly awe-inspiring one-liners (“If I can smell it cooking in the kitchen, I know I’ll be fed”) and jabs that, like the title, appeal to the “it-happened-over-60-years-ago-but-is-it-still-too-soon?” sense of humour (ever wonder what the cause of pedophilia is?). It surely isn’t everyone’s style, so those who don’t think National Geographic should be used for any purpose other than anthropological study should probably reconsider their evening plans. But for the rest of us, the script is the star of this production, oozing the personality and spirit of Harrelson and Hyman⎯two friends and storytellers just having a ball making jokes and being boys. We wish we could have been a fly on the wall (or probably the bottle) in their writing sessions, partly to see what didn’t make it into the script, but also to pick up some tips, because we feel woefully inadequate as writers after witnessing their witticisms.
The cast of (mostly) young up-and-comers also earn their laughs, taking the personal words and stories of Woody and Hyman and completely making them their own in a raw, unrehearsed attitude (sometimes completely unrehearsed—Coffey in particular handled last night’s set and technical mishaps with commendable speed and ease). Petrovski’s Dago-Czech, a Miami Vice-inspired smoothtalker with swagger, is a standout right from the opening scene. Though he’s helped out considerably with genius dialogue and a memorable character, Petrovski complements his over-the-top physicality and boisterous speeches with the tiniest of moments that illustrate a much softer heart behind the polyester suits. Another highlight was Coomber as the neurotic fish-out-of-water, Clint. He catches attention initially with one of the better temper tantrums we’ve seen in a while, but maintains it as he transforms Clint into a more assured and confident casanova, with the clearest character arc out of all.
Woody Harrelson’s decision to choose a non-union cast, meaning none of the actors are a part of the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association, has been applauded and criticized⎯on one hand, he’s giving Toronto’s emerging talent a huge opportunity for attention; on the other, he’s got ’em for cheap, cheap, cheap. But in the end, the cast helped add to the unrefined charm of the show, and we look forward to seeing much more from them.
Hopefully we’ll also see more of Harrelson, who chose Toronto specifically to premiere the play because of a long and pleasant history with the city. He’s said if all goes well now, he may even open all future projects here. And even though Bullet for Adolf won’t be initiating any revolutions, it’s been a while since we’ve seen so much hubbub among theatre audiences and the media in this city.
Bullet for Adolf runs until May 7 at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle). Tickets are $32 for adults, $18 for students and seniors, and can be purchased by calling 416-978-8849, in person at the box office, or online at www.bulletforadolf.com.