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'A Public Reading Of An Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney' by Lucas Hnath

An Outside the March and Soulpepper Theatre Production now onstage in the Baillie Theatre, Young Centre for the Performing Arts

Dahlia Katz. Pictured: Diego Matamoros as Walt Disney

Joe Szekeres

“Playwright Lucas Hnath dismantles the wholesome image of American animation icon Walt Disney in a sometimes biting and acerbic script. Diego Matamoros delivers an extraordinary Voice Choice award-winning performance.”

The darkly humorous ‘A Public Reading’ challenges the conventional perception of Walt Disney as a universal father figure, a notion that particularly resonates with the baby boomer generation. As someone born near the end of this era, I find this revelation quite thought-provoking.

One thing is for sure – this Outside the March and Soulpepper production remains compelling and engaging throughout.

When I saw Outside the March and Soulpepper’s publicity announcement for the show, the play's title confused me initially. I thought it was a staged reading. I smiled when I saw some reminders on the two theatres' social media pages that this is a full production, not a staged reading.

Outside the March and Soulpepper have smartly staged ‘A Public Reading’ in a theatre-in-the-round setting on the Baillie Theatre Stage in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Hnath’s story unfolds in a corporate office, perhaps Walt’s. There’s a Mickey Mouse phone, a standing ashtray and a bar cart along the circular perimeter. A large conference table containing varied office supplies is placed on a circular riser.

Technical Director James McCoy incorporates a slow-rotating circular stage upon which the conference table sits. This was a terrific idea to allow the audience to witness the story unfold from various perspectives at the table.

With his uncanny resemblance to Disney, Diego Matamoros delivers a compelling and extraordinary performance. Sporting a yellow bow tie and clothing reminiscent of the sixties, Walt breaks the fourth wall to engage with the audience. Matamoros’s Walt, who has written a screenplay about himself and his life, is both intriguing and a tad egotistical, adding depth to the character.

The screenplay also deals with a city that Walt wants to build. There are hints that this city he speaks of is the Orlando Disney World we know today. Throughout this intermission-less story, questions upon questions upon questions are revealed. Why does Walt’s Daughter hate him so much? Why can’t this city be built any quicker? Will Walt continue to control his empire from the grave after he’s gone?

Anahita Dehbonehie’s Set, Nick Blais’s Lighting, and Niloufar Ziaee’s Costume Designs boldly capture the visual look of the 1960s. Sound Designer Heidi Chan solidly captures the sounds from a film studio. There’s so much to take in before the show begins, so leave a few minutes to marvel and appreciate the work that has gone into this re-creation.

Again, credit goes to James McCoy for finding the ‘Steamboat Willie’ cartoon projected on a screen as the audience enters. The 1958 nature documentary ‘White Wilderness’, which involved the Disney company filming the lemmings going into the sea, is also shown upon exiting the auditorium at the end. It’s controversial because rumours again swelled that the company filmmakers were involved in animal cruelty. You can also YouTube the film.

It takes a few moments to adjust to following Hnath’s script as there are several selections of lengthy dialogue and monologues. Script directions are read quite a bit during the show. I was initially puzzled about why Hnath selects this narrative form for his script. Even Director Mitchell Cushman’s programme note is written in a style akin to Hnath’s performed format.

Upon further thinking, I find this format presentation rather clever in a twofold sense.

First, audiences know, appreciate, and love the Disney legend and its founder for the stories told through animation and film. The stories had to be planned through storyboards, scripts, and screenplays. What better way to showcase and highlight Disney’s remarkable influence than using a script format where the actors read directions?

Second, it's also poignantly sad that Disney’s family life perhaps did not live up to his public image. Hnath finely underscores that fact when Walt’s wife and Daughter are never given specific names. Walt is upset that the latter has not bestowed his name on any of his grandsons. This opening night performance strongly suggests why that did not happen.

Mitchell Cushman directs with sensitivity and class. His splendid cast rises to the ultimate heights to make their director proud.

Katherine Cullen (Walt’s Daughter) and Tony Ofori (Walt’s son-in-law, Ron) have a challenging task for about 20-25 minutes from the top of the show. When they enter and sit at the table, they say nothing but follow along as the script is read and are keenly and intently focused on the action when either Walt, Ron, or both speak. When the couple is introduced within the script, Cullen and Ofori often become the brutal brunt of Walt’s tirades. The look of anger in Cullen’s eyes when she finally confronts her father about why his grandsons will not bear his name is palpably blunt.

Anand Rajaram is genuine in his onstage work as Walt’s put-upon and often-shamed brother, Roy. One example occurs when Roy has to take the fall for the labour dispute when the animators want to form a union. Walt can’t understand why they would like to do this. His cry of: “Aren’t we all a family?” signifies even more the possible animosity or fear of a crumbling and falling empire he so diligently wants to build.

Diego Matamoros gives an award-winning Voice Choice performance which I hope will be recognized by the Toronto Theatre Critics and the Doras. He never once ventures into overacting or histrionics and allows the moment to speak for itself. For example, it’s known that Walt died from lung cancer and that he had a horrible cough. Matamoros develops a cough that gradually becomes worse and worse to hear each time.
When the first spot of blood appears on the handkerchief, it’s shocking indeed and a grim reminder that death might just come quicker to those who abuse their bodies with smoking.

Diego’s Walt is often brusque, spiteful, and hurtful. He’s also quite funny in a tragic sense. When Walt calls his wife on the phone, Matamoros mimes, writing the numbers in the air as a reminder of the telephone number that he has difficulty recalling. It’s quick, but this comic moment breaks the dramatic intensity from a few seconds earlier.

And Another Thought: I grew up in the 60s watching the ‘Wonderful World of Disney’ and ‘Wonderful World of Colour’ on Sunday evenings.

Seeing ‘A Public Reading’ doesn’t change those familial memories of watching the show. Far from it. Instead, Hnath’s play becomes the following reminder. Even those like Walt Disney who held themselves in high regard and esteem are still just as mortal as those who sat around the television set on Sunday night relaxing before school Monday morning.

This performance is a must see.

Nab tickets now because word will get out just how outstanding ‘A Public Reading’ is.

Running time: approximately one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.

‘A Public Reading of An Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney’ runs until May 12 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts on the Baillie Theatre Stage, 50 Tank House Lane. For tickets,, or call (416) 866-8666

Directed by Mitchell Cushman

Set Designer: Anahita Dehbonehie
Lighting Designer: Nick Blais
Sound Designer: Heidi Chan
Costume Designer: Niloufar Ziaee
Production Manager: Tori Morrison
Technical Director: James McCoy
Stage Manager: Jeff Soucy

Performers: Katherine Cullen, Tony Ofori, Diego Matamoros, And Rajaram

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