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The Antipodes by Annie Baker

Toronto's Coal Mine Theatre

Toronto's Coal Mine Theatre

Joe Szekeres

Thank you, Coal Mine Theatre, for the tremendously impressive welcome back gift

When I interviewed both Ted Dykstra and Diana Bentley, Coal Mine Chief Engineers, via email for the pandemic Profile series I was compiling (thank you both once again for it), I looked back at their article this morning and found a thought Ted had written:

“Theatre to me is meant to be experienced in a room full of people. Theatrical performances are meant to take place in front of people. This raises the stakes, makes it so much more exciting.”

What a welcome back gift Coal Mine has given not only to me but to all of us with Annie Baker’s ‘The Antipodes.’ The kinetic energy felt in that room was palpably electric. The stakes for the production certainly were raised for me just in feeling this energy which for some reason I could sense I would not be disappointed at all.

And I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Not at all.

So damn good!!!!

If you haven’t got tickets for this one yet, please, please go online and secure seats.

This stimulating and thrilling nine-person ensemble cast are in the board room of an unknown organization. At one point, there is mention of a beach house nearby so I thought the story might have been set in Los Angeles. Eight members (and an effervescent PR assistant who pops in and out periodically) are discussing some unknown problem about storylines so once again I wondered if these eight members are writers of a television show. There appears to be no purpose as to why these characters have been hired and gathered to complete what Joshua Browne, as sock footed Dave, keeps calling ‘the best job he’s ever held.’ Browne becomes that board room jerk one just wants to punch sometime because he’s trying to ‘kiss ass’ the boss while proving to the others how his hardened life from long ago does not affect the guy he has become today.

They each take their places around the meticulously clean looking and well-organized rectangular board room desk centre stage with carefully placed props of writing pads, pens, and pencils at hand, and begin to hash out stories, the first ice breaker being how each of the eight members in that room lost their virginity.

And I was then introduced to some of the most bizarre, ludicrous, wacko and nightmarish tales I have ever heard in my life. To hear every single one of them narrated by a high-grade premium cast and directed with an incisively, sharp edged acerbic vision by Ted Dykstra made for an incredible welcome back that will remain with me for a long time. As I write this review, I can still recall a clearly vivid picture in my mind how that board room looked at the top of the show and its sorry state at the end.

Nick Blais’s strongly accentuated lighting design is put to terrific use especially as the storm approaches and the lights begin to flicker. Andy Trithardt’s sound design nicely underscores moments of an impending storm that occurs outdoors and within the room. A perfect example of that old literary term we remember from high school English classes – pathetic fallacy.

Overhead the board room table is a futuristic odd looking lighting fixture. Downstage left is an exercise ball that is moved around. There is a white board on each wall directly across from one another with red and grey stripes. The red stripes to me appear like lightning bolts. Upstage off centre stage and right are mirrors which will reflect the explosive dynamite action about to unfold. What I found effective in the set from my audience perspective were the angled sliding doors to open and close off the action when Sandy disappears to take a phone call or Sarah magically appears to announce lunch will be on the way shortly.
Underneath the mirror stage right were boxes of the soft drink Bubbly that are periodically opened. Underneath the mirror stage right were two garbage cans.

Baker’s boffo script becomes a series of story vignettes which this confident ensemble tackles with great aplomb and gusto. The intrigue builds with team leader Sandy (slick work by Ari Cohen) then asking those present not to hold back in discussion of anything. Sandy is the kind of boss everyone wants to work for – Cohen wears a ball cap, comfortable looking jeans, running shoes, a very casual look about him. He’s the kind of boss you don’t want to piss off because he says he doesn’t like firing anyone. It’s just the way Cohen quietly but confidently says, “Don’t be an asshole” and you take him at his word and don’t question that call.

At times, the plot and male characters’ brashly sounding misogyny does make for some highly uncomfortable moments (and fodder for dismissal from some other jobs in the world). As lone female of the group, Eleanor, Sarah Dodd’s understated performance beautifully rounds out who she becomes as her story builds to unravel about how she sees herself from her probiotic pills she takes to the Granny Smith green apples she eats up to sharing with others the childhood stuff she had accumulated near the end of the play. As perky PR assistant Sarah to Ari Cohen’s Sandy, Kelsey Verzotti’s perfectly timed humorous scenes reminded me of the passage of time and wondering just how long these board members have remained in that room to flesh and carve out whatever story they are trying to concoct. Yet underneath it all, I got the impression Sarah might be trying to conceal something from the others and Verzotti emanated that in her sometimes-peppy demeanour.

Murray Furrow as Danny M1 offers a prime example in defining an antipode to Simon Bracken’s Danny M2. Furrow’s Danny is furiously bombastic and loud-mouthed while Bracken’s Danny unsettlingly tells a story about working at a job with chickens. Colin A Doyle’s Josh becomes that stark, harsh reminder of not being paid for work, or not having the proper protocol access to enter the building in what earlier has been deemed the best job those people in this room are likely ever to hold. As Brian and Adam, Joseph Zita and Nadeem Phillip respectively and truthfully embody that employee geekiness in note taking every single moment of a meeting versus the individual in the room who feels he must be heard and listened to because his ideas are important.

Final Comments: Passive-aggressiveness never looked or sounded so fine as it did at this opening night performance of Coal Mine’s ‘The Antipodes’ with this top-of-the-line cast.

A must see. Get tickets.

Covid protocols in place at Coal Mine and I felt very safe.

Running time approximately one hour and 55 minutes with no intermission

THE ANTIPODES by Annie Baker
Directed by Ted Dykstra
Apprentice Director: Anat Kriger
Set and Lighting Design: Nick Blais
Costume Design: Andy Trithardt
Head of Props: Kayla Chaterji
Stage Management: Hannah MacMillan

The Cast: Simon Bracken, Joshua Browne, Ari Cohen, Sarah Dodd, Colin A. Doyle, Murray Furrow, Joseph Zita, Nadeem Phillip, Kelsey Verzotti.

Performances run to May 15 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto. For tickets, visit Performance times are Tuesday – Saturday evening at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm.

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