Esteemed Soulpepper actors trade their classical canon for an underclass comedy in Lee MacDougall's High Life.
The characters in Soulpepper Theatre’s latest production put the classical company, and its name, in a new light: while some traditional plays have a bland reputation, these guys certainly have plenty of spice. The characters in High Life, though, are also severely lacking souls.
In Stratford-based actor and playwright Lee MacDougall’s 1996 debut script, directed here by Stuart Hughes, four small-town drug addicts and small-time hustlers attempt what appears to be a fool-proof plan to empty the ATMs at local bank branches so that they can buy their way to health, happiness, and dreams as high as they are. It’s a shoot-up for the sake of more shooting up.
A far cry from the Victorian epics Soulpepper does so well, High Life is a shocker from the get-go—especially for audiences unfamiliar with this twisted buddy comedy, which enjoyed national and international tours as well as a film adaptation. The creative team relishes in the devilishness, even giving the pre-show “Turn off your cell phone” warning an unexpected dose of vulgarity. Hughes plays up the guys’ gross-outs about the worst places to stick a needle and tales of seduction gone horribly, horribly awry. On top of that, homoerotic undertones go from subtle to overt as the four seek out the quickest and easiest way to release their frustrations, through their next fix or in some other way. Whatever comes first.
Strange as it is to see “dropping the soap” jokes on the Soulpepper stage, it seems equally hrilling for the actors, who fall surprisingly easily into the stock characters of the crime comedy. We have the intellectual Diego Matamoros as Dick, the diabolical mastermind and ringleader of the motley crew. Burly Michael Hanrahan plays Bug, a reserved but short-tempered man who comes straight from jail back into the sordid dealings that landed him in there. Oliver Dennis, Soulpepper’s clown, is hilariously frail-yet-feisty as the sickly Donnie. And rounding out Dick’s team is the new guy, Billy, a young ladies’ (and gentlemen’s) man with the charm to pull everything together, played by Mike Ross. Hanrahan and Dennis are the standouts here, but all four have the giddy chemistry of grade-schoolers in detention wickedly reminiscing over their wrongdoings.
Other aspects of the show—the set and sound, for example—are where Soulpepper tends to show its inexperience in portraying society’s down-and-out. Scene changes plunge the stage into blue light and feature guitar riffs that are a little too Nickelback, while the set doesn’t say much at all. Effective, however, are specific moments with the soft murmur of a heartbeat in the background, which arise when a character reaches his breaking point and needs some kind of relief—any kind—and immediately.
Drugs, illness, death, and crime aren’t new to theatre or to any Soulpepper season (Eugene O’Neill’s addiction-addled Long Day’s Journey Into Night premiers this week as well), but on this particular stage they rarely get this kind of raw, base treatment. The flavour High Life is adding to Soulpepper’s canon isn’t sweet, but it sure packs some heat.