The drama that happens within prison walls is perfect material for storytelling, hence the prevalence of jailhouse material in action movies, TV dramas like Oz, and plays like John Herbert’s controversial 1967 hit, Fortune and Men’s Eyes. Though Fortune is one of Canada’s most published scripts, modern audiences haven’t heard from inmates Smitty, Mona, Queenie, and Rocky in quite some time. BirdLand Theatre, known for successful productions of Assassins, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, and last year’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, is currently mounting the play in a Distillery District dance studio. Their aim is to showcase this iconic piece of Canadian theatre history, known for exposing the mental and sexual abuse that happens to people in confinement. Unfortunately, this version carries little of the original production’s impact.
On the one hand, it could be that shows like Oz have desensitized us. We’re at the point now where we can have fun with prison stories: the Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black, which takes place in a women’s prison, is more of a soapy comedy than a searing drama. But that’s letting BirdLand director Stefan Dzeparoski’s production off too easily. Its biggest flaw is the lack of focus in its direction. Herbert’s script is a dense, honest one about the frailty of the human spirit. Dzeparoski tries to make it more symbolic and avant-garde. It’s a valiant risk, to give credit where credit’s due, but sadly, the result is muddy and ineffective.
The plot of Fortune and Men’s Eyes revolves around Smitty (Julian De Zotti), a young man. He joins a cell with burly bully Rocky (Cyrus Faird), drag queen Queenie (Alex Fiddes), and shy, bookish Mona (David Coomber). Like vultures on a fresh kill, Smitty’s cellmates attempt to woo him sexually with promises of protection and extras from the kitchen, until Smitty learns to handle things for himself. BirdLand’s production is set in a large dark box of a room, and though much of the space is taken up by rocks hanging on pieces of rope at varying lengths, it still feels too big to convey the right sense of claustrophobia (it also has troublesome acoustics). The bigger problem, however, is the surrealist design, which includes not only the perplexing rocks, but spark lighting, ghostly sounds, cots made of black garbage bags lain across the floor, and a guard made of wooden sticks covered in plastic wrap with a megaphone head. To further remove the viewers from the action, the actors introduce themselves and announce the beginning of each new scene.
We’re meant to understand that the characters are symbolic of some deep, intricate, hidden message. As we get consumed by this, we miss their dialogue, which is already hindered by those previously mentioned bad acoustics, plus unfamiliar prison lingo, and, in some cases, inconsistent accents and hurried speech. We miss the characters. And by the time we catch up, it’s too late to feel much more than discomfited pity.
In order to be properly horrified by the events of the play, the audience first needs to see the characters’ humanity, front and centre. In this production, all the humanity is removed before the play even begins.
There is a positive, though, and it comes during the only part of the play that offers the slightest hint of hope. Near the end, a scene between De Zotti and Coomber—who happen to be the two strongest performers—as Smitty and Mona is a moving display of how a person can hold onto a piece of themselves, even in a devastating environment. It hits boldly and unexpectedly, not only because of the words and performances, but because of its startling clarity.
This isn’t at all to say that Toronto needs more straightforward productions of theatrical relics—the opposite is true. Dzeparoski deserves an “A” for effort and enthusiasm. But in dealing with stories of prison culture, the goal shouldn’t be to make the audience feel like they’re inside, too.