The latest work by prolific playwright Kat Sandler, who generates clever content for indie-company-on-the-rise Theatre Brouhaha, Cockfight follows an unlikely attempt by three foster brothers to obtain a rooster in order to make their fortune in underground cockfighting matches.
Sandler—named one of our “local ladies who make us laugh” in 2013—has often applied her gift for comic dialogue to tragic stories, and in her latest play, the characters are more desperate and downtrodden than ever. This time around, Sandler is also directing, and she has a deft touch for showing off her protagonists’ dramatic strengths—though her supporting character and the lead-up to the brothers’ climactic confrontations are not as well developed.
Mike (Benjamin Blair) has made a deal with a scarred and tattooed man (“Scarman Devilman,” who appears in the second act in a sly performance by David Tompa) to obtain a rooster he intends to train for prizefighting. His burly but gentle brother Charlie (Brenhan McKibbon) has misgivings, but is talked into supporting Mike’s sporting ambition, which leaves their third brother, August (Jakob Ehman), the socially inept youngest sibling (and the only one gainfully employed, as a dishwasher), little room to protest. Mike is shrewd enough to realize that he can win “Auggie’s” support through his brother’s crush, a waitress at work named Ingrid (Caroline Toal). The brothers have several days until the bird will be delivered, and at that point, Mike will give Devilman Scarman the collateral he’s holding. Naturally, nothing goes as planned.
The no-collar class Chiavetti brothers are a dramatically potent creation, though the play isn’t quite as effective as it could be in exploiting that. And it feels as if Caroline Toal’s antagonist Ingrid, who proves to be a disruptive influence in their lives, should be given an earlier scene with one particular brother to help explain a betrayal she provokes. Her motivations—as a collector of “experiences,” hang the consequences—are solid, but the betrayal scene feels rushed in a way it wouldn’t have if the seeds had been planted in an earlier encounter.
Blais’s cornrowed alpha-brother, Mike, both the most morally compromised brother and the most self-aware, instigates much of the conflict through his schemes (and poor follow-through), though he does care for his brothers, even when he’s trying to exploit them. There’s some deep-seated guilt in his make-up that manifests in several ways: during a scene in which he provokes them into sparring with him and ends up with a cut lip he admits, “Sometimes I need a hit.” He’s not above “negging” a woman in an attempt to seduce her, or manipulating his brothers for his own ends—but he clearly sees them as both responsibilities and as anchors for his better instincts.
McKibbon’s more steadfast brother Charlie—whose pining for a girlfriend who left him has led him obsessively to build beer can pyramids and pump out push-ups—is aware that he’s not much for clever schemes, and naively trusts in Mike to keep the brothers solvent. Ehman’s August, meanwhile, develops most over the course of the show, learning he has power over his brothers—though his transformation isn’t entirely positive.
Taking place in the round, literally, as the brothers turn their living room into a training arena for their fighting bird, the set isn’t the most evocative we’ve seen to date at the Storefront Theatre (that distinction would go to the recently Dora-nominated After Miss Julie), but it’s certainly a more sophisticated setup than, say, some of Theatre Brouhaha’s past Fringe shows. Deliberately grubby and ramshackle, it certainly suits the Chiavettis’ ramshackle lives. And when violence does inevitably erupt, it plays out effectively against the backdrop of the sand and scavenged chicken wire that surround the space.
Sandler has another project debuting next month at the Toronto Fringe—Punch Up, a three–hander about a kidnapped comedian—and even more irons in the fire for this fall and winter. We certainly recommend seeing this one, as the Chiavettis may be her richest creations yet. We’d certainly like to see them appear in a sequel that more fully explores their past and future misdemeanours.