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'No One's Special At the Hot Dog Cart' by Charlie Petch

Now onstage at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille

Credit: Nika Belianina Pictured: Charlie Petch

Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, adjudicator, arts educator

'This solo performance poignantly hammers home the importance of coping, listening, and helping.'

I was a Toronto boy! It was my city! I spent three years in a downtown university and the next two decades of my career within a 3-kilometre radius of Yonge and Dundas. It was a pleasant trip down memory lane then to rewind the clock and re-live the urban jungle of decades past with Charlie Petch’s whimsical, yet provocative, “No One’s Special at the Hot Dog Cart” now playing at Theatre Passe Muraille.

This irreverent, funny, and oh-so-timely reminiscence, performed by the playwright in a single 65-minute act, is a personal and societal exposé of the impact of sharing space. It poignantly hammers home the importance of coping, listening, and helping through first-hand events they experienced as a teenaged hot dog vendor and how the de-escalation techniques learned years later as a health care worker could have saved relationships and forged a deeper understanding of the street community.

The play’s politically charged themes of dignity, an overburdened health care system, criminalizing the underserved and connecting to the human condition are not new, but they do challenge our collective attitudes and responsibilities. Through monologues, spoken word, and music, Charlie proclaims how a failing economic structure perpetuates poverty rather than protects the poor. All this while pushing around a hot dog cart.

Staged in Passe Muraille’s main black box space, we see the faint background of the building’s brick wall and fire escape metal stairwells. Charlie emerges from the distant shadows dressed in jeans, T-shirt and plaid shirt tied around the waist. They push a hot dog cart between two light standards signed “Yonge & Dundas” and “Church & Gerrard”. They stand like sentinels marking the perimeter of Charlie’s garbage-strewn precinct of the early 90s.

To the left is a small platform with a microphone, stand, a foot-operated recording device and several eclectic instruments including a ukulele, cowbell and even a handsaw (when was the last time you saw someone play one of those?). Also visible are buckets, pylons, squeegees, a necktie, sneakers, and milk crates. These are later assembled to act as proxies for Frank and Jimmy, characters integral to Charlie’s narrative.

As with many new works and pieces still in development, playwrights often cast themselves in their own leading role. Such is the case here. Petch is storyteller, observer, philosopher, and advisor, thoroughly invested in a message that must be heard. Petch’s talents as a wordsmith and musician are undeniable, their acting skills not quite as accomplished. Some lines were hard to hear when facing away from the audience (with no help from the inoperative headset microphone).

Characters and situations in Charlie’s monologues, like the unfortunate thief Frank or the loner Jimmy, could have been more colourful and impactful were it not for Petch’s frequently monotone, one-note delivery. Rather than speaking to milk crates, Petch could have breathed more life into the characters by becoming them through simply donning a hat, slipping on a tie, or wrapping in a blanket. Perhaps this acting challenge will be realized in future iterations.

Director Autumn Smith stages the scenes in the downtown locations clearly. We know where we are in the city – the corner, the street, Dundas Square, a parking lot. The pace mostly clips along as Charlie follows the hot dog cart to meet new people and discover new things about what makes Toronto tick.

What’s not always clear is Charlie’s focus.

Much of the first half they avoided eye contact with the audience, delivering lines in profile to some formless shape on stage right. This choice served to disconnect more than engage this reviewer. Less clear were the juxtapositions of Charlie’s future years as a hospital caregiver and 911 operator with their heady hot dog days. I wanted this contrast to be more apparent with a physical or lighting change to signify these leaps in time.

Sounds of street buskers, music and blaring megaphones added greatly to the inner-city heartbeat. It is problematic that the pace of Charlie’s narrative suffers while they move to a small platform at the side to set up equipment and instruments to record it live. Perhaps pre-recordings could have been used here to supplement rather than slow the pace.

Lighting designer Steph Raposo nicely shapes a shadowy set with sharp spots and square shapes representing digital screens. Amber and blue hues effectively convey the morning and midnight hours. Street scenes are instantly recognizable. As stated earlier, a deliberate effect to transition us to Charlie’s health care years and back would keep the narrative lucid.

Set designer Joel Richardson evokes the iconic Toronto locations perfectly by plunking two towering light standards in opposing corners, metropolitan monoliths with an excess of trash strewn at their bases, a constant reminder that this is a city story of intersecting communities.

“No One’s Special at the Hot Dog Cart” is a love letter to relationships, self-discovery, compassion, respect for our street communities and an overburdened health care system. It’s about de-escalation and the truth about what’s working in our emergency services and what’s failing us.

Perhaps Charlie’s message of “if I knew then what I know now” can give us all to cause to ponder, protect, respect and question, “Am I helping enough?”.

Running time: approximately 65 minutes with no intermission.

The production runs until March 23 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto. For tickets: visit or call (416) 504-7529.

A Co-production with Theatre Passe Muraille and Erroneous Productions
The World Premiere of
‘No One’s Special at the Hot Dog Cart’ written and performed by Charlie Petch

Directed by Autumn Smith
Set Design by Joel Richardson
Lighting Design by Steph Raposo

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