'Public Enemy' by Olivier Choinière. Translated and Adapted by Bobby Theodore

Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, Canadian Stage, 26 Berkeley Street

The company of 'Public Enemy'. Credit: Dahlia Katz

Joe Szekeres

A stunning, jaw-dropping and jolting slice-of-life production that blows the roof off the Baillie Theatre. Flawless in performance delivery coupled with marvellous storytelling.

Get to Canadian Stage to see this exceptional ‘Public Enemy’.

It is around 8 pm and a family dinner is just finishing up. We are in the apartment of the matriarch, Elizabeth (a subtly stirring performance by Rosemary Dunsmore). At the table are her three adult children: James (powerful, gut-punching work by Jonathan Goad), Daniel (a seething, bubbling performance by Matthew Edison) and their sister, Melissa (firmly grounded and centred work by Michelle Monteith). Additionally, two youths are also present - Melissa’s daughter, Olivia (a carefully controlled shy, ‘Mama’s girl’ performance by Maja Vujicic). James’s son, Tyler (again, carefully controlled seething work by Finley Burke) is off stage in the living room watching television. Later we meet Daniel’s street-smart but dippy and controlling girlfriend, Suzie (a knock-out-of-the-park monologue delivery by Amy Rutherford).

This family may appear to be ‘ordinary’ at first glance as we hear snippets of conversations on a sea of topics ranging from recent Canadian political events. For some reason, dinners always seem to encourage discussion of this nature.

But as the story unfolds, this family is far from ordinary. They are on the brink of disastrous and fractured relationships with each other. Although I dislike this word, the first thing that came to my mind - what a bunch of f_ups.

I’m still leaning towards that.

It appears James may have split from his wife/partner and his sullen son, Tyler, shows the impending results. Olivia’s mental health is bone china fragile and her mother, Melissa, does not want to publicly recognize her daughter’s state of mind. Elizabeth fell in the apartment a few weeks ago and her children wonder if she needs to move into a retirement home. For some reason, Daniel (who studied as a lawyer) cannot seem to hold a job and has moved in with his mother to help her out. His brother and sister then accuse Daniel of unjustly taking money from their mother.

Through the midst of all this fighting and bickering between the adults, playwright Olivier Choinière and director Brendan Healy strongly made me pay attention to the highly impressionable Tyler and Olivia. They are battling and coping with their demons as so relevantly showcased in the second scene where the two fight over the television remote and their true teenage angst-filled frustrations run rampant. What became so bizarrely comic and then turn momentarily frightening was the furor in Burke’s eyes as he patiently waits to pounce and then kill the squirrel on the balcony railing. A powerful moment to see. I felt myself hold my breath as I’m sure a few people around me also did as well.

Watching and hearing trusted individuals bicker and argue does not create a calm and trusting atmosphere. One of the highlights of this production was watching that second scene between Finley Burke and Maja Vujicic. These two emerging and engaging professional artists are ones whom I will watch for in future. They never upstaged the action played out in front of them but resolutely and believably showed they listened and responded accordingly.

And the title of the play itself - ‘Pubic Enemy’. According to playwright Olivier Choinière, who is this public enemy? When that information is finally revealed, that topic needs to be discussed later. Might there be a talkback sometime after the performance focusing on this question?

It has been a long time since I entered a theatre and saw a completely dark stage with no hint of visiting the set before the story began. My thought - we must be about to see something remarkable.

It certainly was for me.

And what a wise choice director Brendan Healy and set designer Julie Fox made not to show us the set. Why? Because I honestly felt I was taken away from my seat and had that proverbial fly-on-the-wall vantage point from which I could see the intensely unfolding action.

The stage floor turntable was a wonderful surprise. We are shown Elizabeth’s dining room, living room and apartment/condo balcony. Kimberly Purtell’s lighting design nicely illuminated the critical playing areas. I thought Richard Feren’s selection of the pre-show musical selections underscored the tension that was about to play out before me.

Brendan Healy’s mighty fine direction remains firm but never overpowering as he allows his five-star cast to tell the story with gut-wrenching aplomb many times.

This highly engaging ensemble performance work on opening night was another golden opportunity for which all actors must avail themselves to see before the play closes. Jonathan Goad sharply and confidently exudes that rough blue-collar Bowmanville (I laughed out loud since I’m from Durham Region) resident who may or may not have roughly mishandled his temperamentally morose son. Michelle Monteith’s Melissa cut right to the heart of me. Here is a woman who, like her mother, has had to be that impartial referee and umpire between her brothers over their battles for years. Monteith’s voice perfectly nails just how exhausted she has become in having to mediate and she’s had enough, especially when Melissa learns of her mother’s fall in the apartment. Matthew Edison’s Daniel remains unsettling and perturbing but I loved how I was feeling that sense of dread and fear. For some reason, I’m picturing how this Daniel could just lose it one day and do God knows what especially if his dippy girlfriend doesn’t lay off him to succumb to her ‘demands’.

Rosemary Dunsmore exudes a quiet strength and fortitude within as a mother who has had to endure so much. But there is more to Elizabeth and Dunsmore bravely shows this in the final moments on the balcony where she quietly smokes a cigarette and stares off into the distance. The look on her face and in her eyes reveals a woman on the brink of many bottled issues. That last moment in this play became magnetically haunting for me two days after seeing it.

Another one of my picks for this fall season. Do not miss this.

Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no intermission

‘Public Enemy’ runs to October 8 at the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, Canadian Stage, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto. For tickets, visit canadianstage.com or call 1-416-368-3110

‘Public Enemy’ by Olivier Choinière
Translated and Adapted by Bobby Theodore
Directed by Brendan Healy

Set Designer: Julie Fox
Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell
Video Coordinator: Laura Warren
Sound Designer: Richard Feren

Performers: Finley Burke, Rosemary Dunsmore, Matthew Edison, Jonathan Goad, Michelle Monteith, Amy Rutherford, Maja Vujicic

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