Monday, October 22, 2018


The current production of THE MEN IN WHITE at Factory Theatre holds the promise of a play that could provide powerful cultural reflection in the face of great turmoil. But much like the clash of politics and religion in both countries where the action occurs, that promise is divided and corrupted in complex and tragic ways. Unfortunately these divisions manifest themselves in a theatrically compromised manner onstage that may have more to do with production values than dramaturgy. 
Anosh Irani’s script is a well constructed interplay between two disparate worlds that share similar dreams within vastly different environments. Irani’s intense dramedy moves from fast paced romantic misconception to intense religious and social conflict. Components of the stage setting give the overall scenic tension a kind of IKEA cabinet look that perhaps unconsciously downplays the raw setting of the chicken slaughterhouse that opens the play, and finds a much more  contrasting and vivid representation in the stage directions of HOUSE OF ANANSI'S published version (generously supplied to reviewers on opening night) - “a large cage with live chickens in it, packed shoulder to shoulder.” Except for a lightly blood splattered apron on one of the players, the setting feels like a tightly caged cleaned up model, with a few fake chickens penned into small cabinets that have been stripped of the gritty enterprise that (given the stage directions) the playwright must have had in mind. 
The use of large projections might have solved the obvious problems with representing this kind of naturalistic set design. As it stands, some of the smaller set pieces move around between the two worlds (a Mumbai chicken coop/slaughterhouse and a Vancouver Cricket Club locker room) in ways that blur the worlds in bewildering and awkward ways. When one cricket players sits on a chicken coop cabinet, the caged side of the cabinet filled with chickens lies directly below him, while at other times the side of the cabinet is a simple seating space for the player. Was this a mistake on opening night regarding blocking or was it a weak example of the two worlds mixing as the action moves rapidly back and forth between the two playing spaces? 
Similarly, the players within the two separate worlds differ in their style of performance in a blurred and problematic way. The Mumbai cast is a rapid-fire, breakneck exercise in comedy and romantic mayhem that possesses great comic timing on the part of all three actors, with moments of unsettling conflict that play out later n the work. 

Unfortunately, with some momentary exceptions, the Vancouver locker room cast is uneven, and the timing, vocal intensity, and physicality is consistently off during these all male, frequently failed acts of boisterous camaraderie. It becomes difficult to gage the power and success of Irani’s longer speeches as they become stifled by awkward delivery and stilted banter - unexpected outbursts rather than furious integrated responses. 
An early sequence about one of the players dates with a Russian woman becomes a very questionable moment of toxic masculinity as it weaves in and out of the comic overtones of the piece. This may point to one weak aspect of the script - whereby women become absent players in the after hours escapades of desperate cricketeers craving an adrenaline rushing ‘win.’ And yet this might have been avoided had the locker room performers been able to inject far more empathy into a complex tragicomic drama.
The overall direction of the Mumbai half of the play’s action seems lacking in physical nuance, and the kind of objectifying locker room banter that has become such a troubling part of the current response by defensive global political figures who attempt to write it all off and misidentify their behaviour as simple locker room antics. More intense physical altercations and a more rambunctious representation of the conflicts in the cricket club could have enlivened the scenes that played, on opening night, as frequently entertaining but generally flat exercises in misplaced self restraint.
Two of the saving graces of this production lie in the performances by Chanakya Mukherjee as Hasan and Huse Madhavji as Baba. Their robust, often comic, at times lightly abusive interplay as loving cohorts in the slaughterhouse, depends on genuine performances that embrace the complex duality of emotion and action that the script embodies. Both actors deliver this with great expertise. Tahirih Vejdani as Haseena plays well as the powerful subject of Hasan’s romantic aspirations, moving the play toward its intense climax. But the script does not always allow her character the opportunity to fully explore her position as a woman attempting to release herself from paternalistic interplay. 

Unfortunately, half of the stage - half of this significant cross cultural story - rarely matches the physical and vocal success of the slaughterhouse scenes  (a significant metaphoric connection to the global violence the overall play refers to) - thereby leaving a crucial element of the action in limbo. There are valiant attempts by all of the actors but they get lost in a melange of downstage confinement penned in by a chicken coop and a locker room that lack the visual and emotional components that might have contributed to a more successful production of The Men In White.

Not to suggest, after all this critique, that this is not a production worth seeing. The Men In White, despite shortcomings in its current Factory Theatre production, is a powerful, at times engaging, but flawed attempt to bring to the stage the Toronto premiere* of an award winning 'Canadian' play that addresses serious global issues from a dual (Vancouver/Mumbai) perspective.
*The Men In White debuted at the Arts Club Theatre Company's Granville Island Stage (Vancouver) 
in February of 2017

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