Two gripping plays examine the perils of front-line journalism and the ugliness of office bullying.
Time Stands Still
Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue)
Runs to March 29
The Coal Mine (798 Danforth Avenue)
Runs to April 5
Work and the workplace are the focus of two startlingly different but equally thought-provoking plays currently getting indie productions in Toronto. Time Stands Still, produced by the TSS Collective at Theatre Passe Muraille, is a complex, nuanced drama about the dangers, trauma, and moral dilemmas faced by journalists in war zones. Bull, presented by the fledgling Coal Mine Theatre of The Motherf**ker With the Hat fame, is a savage, symbolic depiction of office bullying that’s about as subtle as a kick in the teeth.
It’s often said that the key to happiness is love and meaningful work. But what if your work begins to conflict with your love? Or if what you consider to be meaningful is judged to be morally indefensible by others? Those are just a couple of the questions raised by U.S. playwright Donald Margulies in Time Stands Still. With this quietly powerful play—a 2010 Tony Award nominee—Margulies trains a zoom lens on a brilliant photojournalist and her longtime partner, a reporter, as their once-shared passion for covering wars and disasters begins to tear at the fabric of their relationship.
Globe-trotting photographer Sarah (Kirstin Rae Hinton), seriously injured by a roadside bomb while on assignment in the Middle East, has been forced to return home to her New York apartment to recuperate. Although she’s struggling to make a fast recovery and get back into the field, her boyfriend James (Jason Jazrawy) is having second thoughts about being a foreign correspondent. He came back home from their job earlier, not physically hurt, but afflicted with post-traumatic stress after witnessing a particularly gruesome bombing.
James wants Sarah to settle down, marry him, and start a family. She’s also getting pressure from her editor and mentor, Richard (Sam Rosenthal), who’d like her to rest on her laurels for a while and publish a book. But it’s Richard’s shallow young girlfriend, Mandy (Carleigh Beverly), who really gets under Sarah’s skin, questioning how she can coolly document tragedies and atrocities without trying to stop them. Although Mandy is naive, her provocation forces Sarah to defend—and re-examine—her vocation.
Margulies, like a good reporter, comes at the story from all angles. Even the seemingly flaky Mandy ends up earning our respect as the play looks at the different life choices people make. Sarah is forced to choose between her love for James and her love for her work, in a relationship that is already complicated by infidelity on her part and his sense of inadequacy next to her talent. It’s a credit to Margulies’s even-handed writing that we sympathize with them both.
This production was originally presented at last summer’s Toronto Fringe and, if you didn’t see it then, be sure to catch the remount at Passe Muraille before it closes on Sunday. Director Jordan Merkur elicits excellent performances from his cast, led by Hinton’s wiry, restless Sarah, who hobbles about her apartment like a wounded cat trapped in a cage. Beverly is a bubbly contrast as a wide-eyed, ditzy Mandy, who later becomes confident and grounded once she has a child. As Richard, Rosenthal embodies the gentle but insistent qualities of an ideal editor, while Jazrawy makes movingly palpable both James’s devotion to Sarah and his frustration with her.
At the opening of Time Stands Still, James is seen writing a cultural essay called “The Cinema of Cruelty” that examines the popular use of torture in 21st-century horror films. But torture needn’t be physical to be horrifying. Witness Bull, Mike Bartlett’s painful, pointed one act, in which a white-collar worker is subjected to relentless psychological abuse by his two office mates.
Bartlett’s play takes place in a meeting room, where Thomas (Ryan Rogerson), Isobel (Diana Bentley), and Tony (Damon Runyan) await a visit by their boss, Carter (Mark Caven), to find out which one of them is about to be “downsized.” To kill the time, cool Isobel and handsome Tony bait, trick, and needle the sweaty, frumpy Thomas with a wanton cruelty that’s excruciating to watch. There’s little relief for him when the boss, no less nasty, finally arrives and no secret as to who is getting the sack.
In the final scene, Bartlett—the U.K. playwright whose earlier play, Cock, was memorably staged by Studio 180 last season—offers some relief by exchanging the realm of reality for that of metaphor. Isobel, as slim and graceful as a matador, is left to deliver the coup de grâce to snorting, bullish Thomas in a confrontation that’s more absurd than it is appalling.
By then, you’ve stopped feeling sorry for the victim and begun to wonder at the motives of his tormentors. The cruelest one, Isobel, claims to have been sexually abused by her father, which may account for her desire to hurt and humiliate the wretched Thomas. Bullies, after all, have usually been mistreated themselves. Bartlett, however, is less interested in the psychology of his characters than he is in presenting their viciousness as a spectator sport.
Director David Ferry and his designer, Steve Lucas, emphasize that by enclosing the Coal Mine’s small playing space with wire mesh, thereby suggesting that we’re watching a cage match. The acting is vivid and intense. Bentley and Runyan, both tall and sleek, are a bullied kid’s nightmare: the pretty mean girl and the private-school cad as adults who are able to act with impunity. Caven’s autocratic Carter, meanwhile, is the corporate equivalent of the heartless teacher who plays favourites. Rogerson deserves danger pay for taking on the role of the brutalized Thomas—and kudos for portraying his hopelessly pathetic character with such conviction.
Real office bullying is more insidious, of course—at least in Canada. Think of the revelations surrounding Jian Ghomeshi’s reign at the CBC, which Ferry makes passing reference to in his program notes. Bartlett, however, is one of those playwright provocateurs who prefer the in-yer-face approach. And the tiny Coal Mine venue, a converted basement under the Magic Oven restaurant on the Danforth, is just the place for that. Watching the methodical destruction of Thomas you may find yourself gasping and squirming as if you had ringside seats at—yes—a bullfight. But Bull is the opposite of the horror movies’ torture porn: there are no sick thrills here, just a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.