52 Pick-Up's Stacked Deck
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52 Pick-Up‘s Stacked Deck

The Howland Theatre Company packs their studio space with a remount of TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi's innovative card-based show.

Alexander Crowther and Ruth Goodwin. Photo by Robert Harding.

52 Pick-Up
Fraser Studios (76 Stafford Street)
Runs until March 22
4 Stars

Plenty of art stems from love and loss, but it’s rare for that art to be collaborative. The original playwrights of 52 Pick-Up, TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi, were romantically linked when they created the show in 2000. (Another of Dawe’s plays, a collaboration with Michael Rinaldi called Toothpaste and Cigars, was recently adapted into the Toronto-set Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan romantic comedy The F Word.) These are 52 scenes about a relationship, touching on moments both pivotal and trivial, from beginning to end to epilogue—and never in the same order, as the actors perform scenes in a random order, picking up the scattered cards from a full deck.

52 Pick-Up has become a favourite showcase for indie theatre companies around the world; there have been stagings in London, Melbourne, Boulder, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Why? Perhaps because Dawe and Bozi designed the show for the Fringe Festival circuit, which means the show is under an hour, and “travels light”—it can be done with two actors and a pack of cards in pretty much any space.

That Fringe suitability (and Dawe’s name recognition in the Fringe world) worked out well for fledgling Toronto-based Howland Theatre Company, which staged the show for a sold-out run last summer at the Toronto Fringe Festival. At the time, we enthused about actors Courtney Lancaster and Kristen Zaza as the featured couple; the script works fine with same-sex couples, two of which are featured in the Howland’s stagings.

Lancaster (who co-directs the show with Paolo Santalucia) isn’t performing this time around. Of the four stage pairings for this remount, we saw Ruth Goodwin and Alexander Crowther against James Graham and Alexander Plouffe, Llyandra Jones and Zaza, and Cameron Laurie and Hallie Seline, who are an offstage couple as well.

The show seems simple enough—pick up a card, do that scene. We saw the lovers’ first meeting as our first card, but know from our past experience that the show doesn’t usually start that way. In a sense, it’s a very realistic post-mortem—the two re-enactors can themselves appreciate both the humour, absurdity, and tenderness in the relived moments, occurring as they come, as would befit any two people reliving their old relationship after enough time and distance have passed. And besides the obvious challenge of dropping immediately into scenes of passion, anger, and other memorable moments, that reliving is the most challenging part of the show. The actors are playing these characters in the present, collaborating on a story of their past. It’s here that Goodwin displays just a bit more range than Crowther; both are engaging in the card scenes, but during the in-between interactions, seemingly improvised, she is slightly more pert, just a little more revealing of the emotional scar tissue that still lingers from their shared past.

Each couple has one final performance this weekend (tonight is Crowther and Goodwin), though tickets are very limited. It’s a rare show that appeals to both the happy couples, the happily (or bitterly) single, and everyone in the middle. Howland has plenty of plans for the future—they’re busy with a regular reading series, and adapting a play by Hungarian Ödön von Horváth, with the assistance of University of Toronto drama chair Holger Syme—but for now, this deceptively simple show is a strong one on which they can cement their reputation.