Russ Hunt's reviews

Cherry Docs
by David Gow

Bunnies in the Headlights Theatre
Black Box Theatre, October/November 2003

That a script is challenging both for a company and an audience, that at the same time it's about something that matters profoundly, and that it not only acknowledges but uses the limitations of the stage, is enough, usually, to get me deeply involved in a production, even if there are some challenges that aren't quite met and some evidence that there's still work to be done on the script or on the production. The production of Cherry Docs which the Halifax-based Bunnies in the Headlights Theatre Company has brought to the Black Box meets all those criteria.

The premise of the action is pretty straightforward, and pretty promising. Danny is a lawyer, a self-styled and pretty self-satisfied liberal, and a Jew -- though a pretty secularized and casual one. He's been assigned, as a public defender, the case of Mike, a neo-Nazi skinhead who has kicked a middle aged oriental man to death with his red Doc Marten boots ("Cherry Docs"). As one might predict, over the course of the pre-trial meetings, the preliminary hearings, and the trial, both of them learn and change in ways we're not supposed to predict (though finally they're pretty much what a theatregoer might expect): Danny comes to doubt the efficacy of his liberalism, his marriage collapses, his career -- which has been advanced by the case -- turns to ashes in his mouth, and by the end he's lost most of the easy comfort he told us about, savouring a Cuban cigar, at the outset, and has begun what seems a retreat into the faith of his father. Mike, on the other hand, having been taken through what Danny calls "the eye of a needle," but which we might call a course of therapy and a catharsis, has begun to see the problems in his neo-Nazi faith (his mechanically-delivered "creed," shouted out at the climax of the show, is one of the most chilling things I've heard on a stage in some time), and has begun to build a life for himself in prison and the hope of one afterward. If there are no real surprises there, there's certainly the potential for some affecting acting and some powerful reflection on ideas, beliefs, society and power.

The staging of this process is imaginative and effective. Against back projections which portentously announce that this is the third or fifth or seventh "Day" and what sort of day it is -- the winter solstice, Sukkoth, or whatever -- everything happens in the meeting room, at a plain table with a couple of chairs, starkly and effectively lit from overhead, with dark, sinister shadows. Well, not everything: we also get regular dramatic monologues from each of the characters, which occur somewhere indeterminate (except for a few of Mike's, which occur under a gridwork of light telling us pretty clearly this is a cell).

Like many two-character plays, this one is really all about relative positions, about who has the power at any given moment, and the challenge for the actors (beyond trying to help us understand the characters and the ideas) is to make us feel where the power is as it shifts back and forth, residing mainly with Danny at the beginning, and, like a really long, tense, engrossing rally in tennis, shifting inexorably -- we begin to see -- toward Mike.

The two actors -- Gordon Gammie as Danny and Conor Green as Mike -- both turn in strong, professional performances. If Gammie is stronger in the monologues -- pulling out the audience's sympathy, for instance when he realizes that the answer to his rhetorical question, "Is his marriage in danger?" is "Yes" -- Green hits his peak in the chilling recitation of the neo-Nazi (we might call it "taliban Christian") faith which is his response to the lawyer's constant poking at his real beliefs. Still, from the beginning I had trouble with the rapid dialogue (stichomythia, it used to be called) between them as they negotiated for position. It seemed, often, to be played for speed rather than snap: you felt the lines were almost overlapping not because the characters were so quick but because the director had insisted the lines be quick. This tended, oddly, to lower the pressure and temperature which had been intensified by the lighting and by the wonderful sound design, using Jewish chanting and electronically altered screams to jack the tension in the house to almost unbearable levels.

Equally important in lowering that temperature was the increasing extent to which the playwright began interpolating what he wanted to say directly into the mouths of his characters rather than allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions. This is always a temptation when a playwright adopts the convention of soliloquy or monologue: yes, it can tell us about the character, but it can also be a way in which a playwright who doesn't trust his script to show us can tell us. This became very strong toward the end of the script, as Danny told us about his life, Mike told us about his hope, and then both of them told us about the mythical, biblical significance of each other's names (yes, Michael, yes, Daniel, yes, of course, archangels and dens of lions, sorry, we don't need to be told).

In spite of these problems, the elegance and tightness and theatrical efficiency of the production, and the direct and thoughtful way it addresses a problem central to our society, make for an absorbing and intense theatrical experience. Michael's meditations on feet and the boots that make them weapons, Danny's narration of being surrounded with ambiguous young black men or squeegee kids, terrified and angry in spite of his confident assertions of white tolerance, and the whole production's insistence that racism isn't a problem to be addressed by education campaigns and slogans, all add up to a script and a production that do something that only theatre can.

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