The Art of Building a Bunker Brings the Frightening Reality of Racism to the Stage
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The Art of Building a Bunker Brings the Frightening Reality of Racism to the Stage

Adam Lazarus's dark satire strikes a chord in the wake of Toronto's municipal election.

Adam Lazarus stars in The Art of Building a Bunker at Factory Theatre. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The scariest show this Halloween has nothing to do with zombies, vampires, or other fictional monsters. It’s about that very real monster, the racist—a slimy creature who, as the 2014 municipal election reminded us, stalks even the most diverse and tolerant of cities. The Art of Building a Bunker, Adam Lazarus’s one-man play at Factory Theatre, subjects us to the tirades and anxieties of an angry, hate-spewing white male. But the really unsettling twist is that he isn’t your stereotypical right-wing bigot—he’s Elvis Goldstein, a Jewish guy married to a gentile and employed by the government.

Lazarus’s black comedy, co-written and directed by Guillermo Verdecchia, was originally staged at the 2013 SummerWorks Festival, but it seems regrettably topical in light of the racial slurs and smears that blighted this year’s election campaigns. Bunker shows us how racism can be the default mindset of those who feel powerless and besieged, regardless of whether they’re citizens of Ford Nation. But unfortunately the play also deals in the sort of outrageous political incorrectness that, while meant to be satirical and refreshing, has started to become unpleasant and tiresome.

We meet Lazarus’s Elvis on the first day of a weeklong sensitivity-training course. An unwilling participant, he’s snarky and cynical—but then you can hardly blame him when the course leader is one of those cheery team-building types with an unctuous manner and an endless supply of belaboured canoeing metaphors. Elvis’s fellow trainees, who are also the targets of his scorn, include a South Asian man, a crass South African, an uninhibited Latina, a mousy Chinese woman, and a whiny gay guy.

Elvis can’t quit, however—he has to complete the course or lose his job—so he endures the touchy-feely exercises. During one of these, he blurts out the name of his perceived nemesis, someone named Selma. The identity of this woman, which he’s reluctant to reveal to the group (and to the audience), becomes the mystery at the heart of the play. Suffice it to say she’s the demonized figure upon whom he projects all his fear and loathing.

And Elvis is full of fear. From the Islamic State to Ebola, he sees all around him the world going to hell—which is why he’s building that bunker referred to in the title. He spends the evenings down in his basement office, planning a survivalist’s refuge for himself and his loved ones.

Lazarus and Verdecchia’s dissection of the bunker mentality is astute, and Lazarus’s vigorous solo performance, which draws on his bouffon clowning skills, is a tour de force of comic caricatures. But his Elvis, grotesque and pathetic, is not quite the Everyman he seems intended to be. We may share his despair at the state of the world, but it’s hard to feel the pain of a character so lacking in empathy for others. When he gnashes his teeth over a shopping bag-laden Portuguese lady who takes up three seats on public transit, we don’t share his irritation any more than we accept the notion that her being Portuguese has anything to do with her behaviour.

The writing is also uneven. The sensitivity-training scenes, while funny at first, are flogged to death, while the cathartic “Selma” monologue at the climax is followed by a surreal and unsatisfying finale. The production, a collaboration between Factory and QuipTake, is suitably sharp-edged and aggressive, with a stark set from Camellia Koo that consists of a maze of basement pipes, and one of Richard Feren’s exuberant and abrasive sound designs. But Verdecchia’s direction inside that framework is sometimes lax.

Yet for all its flaws, The Art of Building a Bunker is a zeitgeist play. Only, let’s hope it’s yesterday’s zeitgeist play. Toronto could use some healing after the divisiveness of the Ford years. It’s time for the Elvis Goldsteins of this city to stop building their bunkers and learn how to live with the rest of us.