Testing the Boundaries
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Testing the Boundaries

As the first of three co-productions between Canadian Stage and The Company Theatre, The Test puts both the actors and the audience to, well, the test.

Philip Riccio as Franzeck and Eric Peterson as Simon have their daddy issues put to The Test. Photo by Guntar Kravis.

The Test

The Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
October 31 to November 26
Monday to Saturday at 8 p.m., Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m.

The Test is a very aptly named play. It not only reflects the crux of the plot—”the test” in question being a paternity test that throws an already strained family into outright turmoil—it’s also a metaphor for its production style. In two and a half hours, both the actors and the audience are put through the rigours of incredibly dense, complex, and engaging theatre. And like any academic test, what you get out of it is a direct result of how much you put in.

A little background research helps with this Test. The Company Theatre is relatively new to the scene, founded in 2004 by co-artistic directors Allan Hawco and Philip Riccio, but it has already earned the industry’s respect with several acclaimed productions (including 2008’s Festen and 2010’s Through the Leaves). As they only produce one or two shows a season, Company Theatre tends to favour more challenging scripts that put the strengths of their (usually esteemed) cast on display. The Test fits into this mandate perfectly: the script by emerging Swiss playwright Lukas Barfuss, in the debut of its startling English translation by Birgit Schreyer Duarte, is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, carried by its characters and dialogue rather than plot.

It also explains the choice of director, Ireland’s Jason Byrne, who could be described more as a “non-director.” He addresses the quintessential dilemma of theatre, to make a moment seem natural by rehearsing it over and over again, by doing just the opposite. There is no blocking, very little feedback, and virtually zero verbal discussion in mounting a production. What results is a play that is constantly evolving, the actors responding to new situations and the audience members deciding for themselves what is going on.

Such an approach requires a cast up to the task, and you really can’t ask for a better one than those in The Test, including vets of the stage and screen Eric Peterson as Simon, an aging politician in the middle of an election and Sonja Smits, as his wife Helle, who is absent from the majority of the play’s action, at first physically (away at an ashram in India), then emotionally. Gord Rand plays their son, Peter, who has taken the titular test and discovers the infidelity of his wife, Agnes (Liisa Repo-Martell). Rounding out the cast is Philip Riccio as Franzeck, Simon’s rags-to-wrath campaign manager. Spearheaded by Peterson and Riccio, the entire cast is impressively off-kilter, both in control and out of control at the same time—highlighted as Agnes stumbles and flops haphazardly in a drunken stupor, with Rand’s grotesque opening monologue that draws as many gasps as guffaws, and in every physical and verbal stumble that the actors commit without a blink.

This acting style is one of many choices that purposely puts the audience on edge—not that the bleak subject matter doesn’t do that already. The language of the script also puts the viewer in a compromising position, trying to decide whether or not to burst out in laughter or sobs and then feeling guilty for being so torn in the first place. The imposing presence of actors watching from the sidelines in John Thompson’s stark set design is unnerving, as is Richard Feren’s impactful sound design, which plays a barely-audible classical music track throughout the show that builds to a near-deafening volume at key points before suddenly and jarringly ending in echoes. The sound design itself mirrors what happens to the Korach family, whose growing tensions only needed one final devastating event to shatter it for good, the reverberations felt for much longer.

That also could be said for The Test in general. It’s uncomfortable, even bewildering, for the audience sitting in the theatre. But the moments, messages, and meanings continue to resonate long after the final bows. It’s a play that paints the idea of a family in a new and unexpected manner. It’s a play that we have trouble confining to almost 800 words. It is a play that, like The Company, only comes around once in a while, and audiences should catch it while it’s here. That is, if they’re up for the test.


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