What Lies Before Us is the new play by Morris Panych, one of Toronto’s theatre auteurs-du-jour. This one is only written by Panych, though, and directed by Jim Millan, ex-Artistic Director of Crow’s Theatre. It’s the story of two geographical surveyors stuck in the Rockies in pre-Railroad Canada with only a Chinese-speaking “manservant” to keep them company.
The play suffers a bit from neither-fish-nor-fowl syndrome. The first act plays like an historical comedy and in the second act, the tone drastically changes to black comedy as the surveyors’ situations become increasingly desperate. Also, the characters are all stereotypes, but the kind of stereotypes your grandfather would probably be more familiar with than you. Matthew MacFadzean is Keating, the foppish Brit-twit who suffers from a rather alarming number of maladies (syphilis, crabs, rabies…). David Storch is almost completely unrecognizable as Ambrose, the crotchety Atheist Scot. Some implications are given as to Ambrose’s sexuality, but this is ultimately undeveloped (although you do get to see MacFadzean totally nude, if that’s your scene). Both parts are played very competently and with humour – Wayne Sujo has rather less to do as Wing, the manservant, a character as marginalised by the script as his people were historically by the Railroad.
Tonally inconsistent though it may be, this isn’t a bad play. There are some very funny moments, a solid cast and it looks very respectable next to some of Canstage’s other recent ventures. But it drags in the second half – Keating meta-theatrically states that the play “doesn’t know where to end” at one point, and he’s right! At some point, the audience cannot help but wonder what, exactly, is lying before them on the stage. Unfortunately, no answer is clear.