Anyone who has ever been among men hell bent on drugs, money & the realization of their wildest dreams knows just how funny, dramatic, & strangely sensual it can all seem.
The current Soulpepper production of Lee MacDougall’s ever-popular dark comic play High Life is rife with dramatic tension and brilliant comic foreplay, mid play, and after play. The debauched commingling of direct tension in this tightly knit script, however, is a very different kind of tension that must have existed in the original 1996 Crow’s Theatre production starring Randy Hughson, Ron White, Brent Carver and Clive Cholerton.
Michael Hanrahan, Diego Matamoros, Mike Ross, and Oliver Dennis display varied degrees of brilliance as they inhabit a cast of characters one may not want to meet in a dark alley, or a brightly lit bank lobby. Dennis as the ailing Donnie is the highlight of the show with his bumbling offbeat zaniness that contrasts sharply with the quirky, manic machismo of Mike Ross’ Billy, and the fading yet powerful testosterone ridden, gun toting violence of Michael Hanrahan’s Bug.
Director Stuart Hughes has carefully placed subtle but smoldering moments of intimacy between men who do things in prison that they claim they don’t do when they’re on the outside. The ensuing repressed boiling pot of homosocial camaraderie-cum-sexuality runs the gamut from hilarious re-tellings of a drunken night when a romantic encounter ended in scatological disarray to a narrative including a stray bullet that somehow found its way into the wrong philandering body. The fleeting but memorable references to stories about the last time these men were in close contact with the opposite sex posit them as diehard heterosexuals with pasts that may have required a little gender diversity in the sack and behind bars.
Hanrahan creates a perfect composite of the bitter, violent, Springsteen obsessed, hoodlum who finds himself in yet another muddled ménage. Matamoros has an effective and direct way of embodying Dick, the ringleader of this hapless foursome, and his delivery is both strong and believable for the most part. He might have exchanged some of his controlled mind play, however, for a bit of the manic energy that the rest of the cast possesses, thereby rounding out a crazed quartet with some of the general ensemble mania that the script seems to demand.
One scene between Dennis and Ross plays in an enigmatic, unexpectedly intimate way as the two men suddenly attempt to bond in the midst of mayhem. The close proximity of their bodies suggests more than the script is ever able to fully realize, nor should it as the dialogue consistently embodies and evades any real human connection between any of the men until very late in the plot. This ambiguous tension reflects the ways in which a somewhat older cast inhabiting a classic Canadian comedy can bring new tension to an old story and come up winners in a production that moves along with the speed of a police cruiser on the heels of a stolen car.
Mike Ross’ beautiful, funny, and expressive delivery of a single monologue demonstrates just how subtle the playwright can be when he dares to barely address some of the hidden agendas and potential pathologies of men at war with themselves, each other, and the rest of society. Anyone who has ever been among men hell bent on drugs, money and the realization of their wildest dreams knows just how funny, dramatic, and strangely sensual it can all seem. As MacDougall’s climax reveals, the surface tensions, even at the end of the day, continue to conceal the profound desire to keep everything just a little mysterious, just a little superficial, and laced with layers of profanity and innuendo.
Sound design by Paul Humphrey is especially effective and works incredibly well for the nuanced drug injection scenes, adding a kind of quixotic Sam Shepard-esque tone to the proceedings, and ultimately fleshing out the subtle narratives regarding the hopes and dreams of four befuddled criminals in pursuit of their next big crime.
HIGH LIFE RUNS AT THE YONGE CENTRE,
IN THE DISTILLERY DISTRICT,UNTIL MARCH 28th