The End of Civilization: a Dark, Funny Trip

By Chrissy Steinbock — Mon, 18/05/2015 - 22:21

The motel: a potent symbol of all things sordid and desperate. The no-tell motel, hotbed of illicit activity, home to desperadoes of all stripes, the place where civilization goes to die. All of this makes it the perfect setting for George F. Walker’s The End of Civilization, a black comedy mystery from his six-part Suburban motel series of plays.

Same Day Theatre has brought the play to Ottawa for the first time in their excellent production now playing at the Gladstone theatre.

It is here in the last chance motel that we meet Henry Cape, out of work for two years, on the brink of bankruptcy and forced to move into a cheap motel. We witness the strain of fruitless days searching for work. Joining him is his wife Lily Cape who’s left the children with her sister so she can support Henry in his time of trial. We go stir crazy right along with them, stuck in this limbo and cut off from everything they define themselves by. Throw into the mix are two disillusioned homicide detectives, over-the-top cop Max Malone (Geoff McBride) and luckless Donny Devereaux (Brad Long) and Sandy (Catriona Leger), the cheerful prostitute next door.

From here we’re taken on a disorienting journey watching the characters unravel under the pressure of their grim circumstances. The disorientation is due to a heady mix of bleakness, the sheer force of the anger expressed in the characters’ many squabbles and the script’s disordered timeline. Kudos to director Mary Ellis who successfully navigates that tricky timeline giving us a sense of dislocation but without confusion. 

The play takes a hard look at the human cost of chronic unemployment and the downward spiral that follows when you realize that you’re not going to get back on your feet again and that it’s only a matter of how fast and how far you’re going to fall. In the hands of the talented cast, the characters’ desperation is palpable and unsettling. One particularly powerful moment is when Henry voices his outrage ranting, “I signed a contract with the world, and I followed all the rules and stipulations but if the contract is null and void the rules of the game are suspended or maybe the game is over”. Sure the set up sounds dark and bleak but with Walker’s incisive writing and the cast’s sharp performances, there are plenty of very funny moments. If you’re a fan of gallows humour you’ll love the script.

The beauty in the production’s direction and performances is that no matter how much each character devolves we can still see a piece of ourselves in them. David Frisch is an impressive Henry Cape, radiating a seething outrage and delivering a powerful portrayal of Henry’s slip into madness. Though Lily Cape draws into herself to deal with the grittiness of her new life, Julie Le Gal presses this point too much, giving us a Lily who’s a little too flat, especially up against the other characters. Catriona Leger’s delivers a strong performance as the no nonsense Sandy, Lily’s friend whose choice to work in the sex trade is portrayed as a point of strength and practicality. Brad Long shines as the greasy Donny Deveraux, caught in his own downward spiral but ever hopeful that he can win Lily over and start a new life. Geoff McBride’s Max Malone is the stereotypical tough cop, stone cold and on the line of caricature in a way that supports the script’s absurdist tone. Together the cast stirs up an electric tension that lasts to the very last moment.

All in all The End of Civilization is a solid production that takes audiences on a loopy trip through the underside of chronic unemployment with plenty of humour throwing light on the bleakness.

The End of Civilization
May 15 - 31, 2015
Gladstone Theatre
Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30pm with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30pm
Tickets: $17.10 - $29.49

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