At our My Theatre Awards party back in April, there was an extremely loud table in the back corner, which the inhabitants called the “Single Safe Soup” table (a mashup of Single Thread, safeword, and Soup Can Theatre). In a theatrical landscape with limited resources from money to playing space to really great actors, one might assume Toronto’s independent theatre companies would be in constant competition with each other for success and survival. But there they were, a gathering of members from three competing indie companies, sitting as one and cheering their brains out when one of their own, safeword’s Brandon Crone, brought home the Best New Work trophy. Seven months later, two of those companies have joined up with a third (Aim for the Tangent) to form an evening of new plays from prompts submitted by other writers. It’s a triumph of collaboration that shows off the best of Toronto’s indie community- creative, cooperative, eclectic, and evocative.
The concept is thus: over the summer, the Circle Jerk team (Soup Can Theatre, safeword, and Aim for the Tangent, led by ace producer Sarah Thorpe off a concept by Justin Haigh) encouraged writers from across mediums to submit their favourite line of original dialogue, completely out of context. Each of the chosen lines “subtlety is not your specialty”, “what’s Bulgarian for slut?”, “I think it’s time we talked about your filthy rituals”, and “I fucking hate potatoes” (chosen from a pool of nearly 300 entries), was then assigned to three creators as a prompt for new work: one playwright for use as an opening line, one playwright for use as a closing line, and one composer as inspiration for the original pieces of music that serve as interludes between the four Circle Jerk one-acts. The result is a cycle of inconsistent quality that, at its most mediocre, is a valuable writing exercise and entertaining night of theatre, and, at its best, is frankly mesmerizing.
The least successful element of Circle Jerk is the music. A great idea that further emphasizes the breadth of artistic possibilities within a single prompt, the actual pieces themselves (most of which aim for humour over beauty) are somewhat lackluster. Also leaving something to de desired is the final play of the evening Soup Can’s The Sessions. With a far weaker cast than the other three plays, this “I fucking hate potatoes”- inspired piece written and directed by Justin Haigh suffers in the closing spot, following the sort of work no one wants to follow. I appreciate that Haigh integrated his opening line prompt into the fabric of his play rather than jumping off and never looking back but his awkward direction does his philosophically intriguing script no favours and his cast can’t keep up the pace required to make the words work.
Soup Can’s other offering comes from Artistic Producer Scott Dermody who is the sole playwright here who performs his own work. Dust Peddlings: Part II is the evening’s most abstract play, using poetry and movement to explore human sexual connection and the arousing potential of the contemplation of sex over the act itself. Director Joanne Williams mines some surprising humour from the heady piece, played with committed intensity by Dermody and Lisa Hamalainen, but ultimately this show-opener (which begins with “subtlety is not your specialty” and ends with “what’s Bulgarian for slut?”) is a little too self-serious to be taken all that seriously.
As Dust Peddlings ends, with “what’s Bulgarian for slut?”, so begins the play that most fascinatingly speaks to the value of Circle Jerk’s premise. The Artist Notes in the program reveal that Aim for the Tangent’s Wesley J. Colford received his writing prompts before the sudden death of a friend, creating Sex and This as part of his healing process (collaborating with director Jakob Ehman who was in a similar headspace). Faced with a looming production date and two prompts that lend themselves to the frivolously comedic, Colford used his assignment as an outlet, handing the sorrow, confusion, guilt, blame, absurdity and helplessness of his experience to the sublime Tiffany Deobald and Carys Lewis as a pair of party-ready twentysomethings who learn of their friend’s sudden death and have to deal with the horrors and shortcuts of modern communication in telling the rest of the world. It’s an extraordinarily moving piece of theatre so tonally transcendent that it nearly made me cry with a joke about googling the answer to “what’s Bulgarian for slut?”. Deobald and Lewis deliver heartbreaking performances guided by Ehman’s delicate hand and insightful use of silence. Only the somewhat forced inclusion of the closing prompt “I think it’s time we talked about your filthy rituals” felt anything but rivetingly honest.
“I think it’s time we talked about your filthy rituals” is redeemed, however, as the first line spoken by G. Kyle Shields in the crowning achievement of Circle Jerk– Brandon Crone’s stunning portrait of love and marriage Maypole Rose. What’s perhaps most special about the success of this post-intermission gem is that it lacks an individual star. Crone’s hilarious, heartfelt and heartbreaking script is matched by his nuanced and inventive direction, which is in turn matched by two of the most gloriously lived-in and generous performances I’ve seen in a very long time. Every creative element on display here is operating at the highest level, working together to create an unshakeable theatrical moment rather than earn standout praise. Shields and Alexander Plouffe share the perfect balance of strong chemistry and casual connectivity that makes their onstage marriage not only believable but familiar and honest to the point where the play almost feels like an intrusion on their privacy. Within the context of a single night and a single pair of lovers, the endlessly insightful Crone examines the delicate power dynamics of modern relationships, the insecurities and desperations that tear us apart, and the fragile love that makes all of that hurt. His characters are complicated, commonplace people in complicated, commonplace places who dance on the lines of morality and love double-stuffed Oreos. There’s a monkey mask and banana sex, an elaborate dance sequence and a prolonged allegorical tangent about cannibalism that comes out of a misguided attempt at dirtytalk. A lot of it’s a little crazy and all of it’s a lot beautiful but, most of all, like Circle Jerk as a concept, the exceptional Maypole Rose is a testament to what the best of us can do with some unexpected inspiration in the spirit of collaboration.
Circle Jerk plays until November 23rd at the lemonTree studio. Click Here for more information.