This year’s Toronto Fringe Festival was lauded as one of the best in recent memory. There were dozens of good shows and more than a couple great ones. Favourites like Wasteland, Cam Baby, A Good Death and Life After were discussed with enthusiasm and general consensus over Dark ‘n’ Stormys in the Fringe Club at Honest Ed’s. The other hit of the festival- arguably the breakout hit of the festival- was another matter entirely. Apart from personal dramas and impromptu demonstrations by drunk stage combat experts, there was one fight that dominated the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival- what was Bright Lights about?
The latest comedy from indie darling/newly crowned Dora Award winner Kat Sandler was widely beloved by festival-goers but also among the most divisive works to hit indieTO in a long time. Everyone had a different interpretation of Bright Lights– what actually happens, who the characters really are, even whether the ambiguity was intentional. The critics tended to give Bright Lights a top rating (5Ns from NOW, an A+ from us) but the reviews vaguely described a fairly simple, if delightful, comedy. The trouble was, to properly delve into what makes Bright Lights an A+ work worth serious, after-the-fact contemplation is to spoil the audience and ruin the integrity of their completely subjective interpretation of the events in the play.
My solution was to skip the vague review in favour of an evasive one, a “this deserves an A+, just take my word for it, I’ll explain later” sort of cop-out promising an eventual deep-dive once the majority of readers had already seen the play. As we approach Bright Lights‘ Best-of-Fringe remount at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (an engagement the organizers bent over backwards to secure around the cast’s packed schedule, presenting Bright Lights and Peter vs. Chris as a special double bill weeks after the rest of Best of Fringe), it’s time for said promised deep-dive.
Here’s the only rule: see the show first. The rest of this article is riddled with spoilers which will not only diminish the experience of seeing the show cold but will also be just plain confusing if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Bright Lights is playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts uptown August 5-7, you can get your tickets HERE. Once you’ve seen the show, we can talk about it. Respond on Twitter or our Facebook page, tag @TheatreBrouhaha and let the producers in on your thoughts. Fighting about Bright Lights is half the fun of Bright Lights; it’s what made it the true standout of Fringe and has kept the play top of mind ever since and likely for a long time. For this article, I spoke with a number of people close to the production and, if there’s one thing I learned, it’s this: there is no right answer. Whatever happened- and there are literally dozens of possibilities- all we as an audience can do is keep our minds open, bring ourselves to it, and believe what we believe. The coolest thing about Bright Lights is that nobody is wrong.
*Spoilers From Here*
A quick refresher: Bright Lights is set at a support group for people who’ve experienced an alien encounter. The group’s eccentric members include a neurotic pregnant woman named Laurel (played by Amy Lee, better known as the alpha personality Jasp in beloved clown duo Morro & Jasp), an alcoholic former actor named Wayne (Chris Wilson of Peter n’ Chris) and Dave, a militant survivalist who brings a literal arsenal with him to every meeting (Peter Carlone of Peter n’ Chris). Their much-discussed leader is a man named Ross, a soft-spoken authority whose charisma and catchphrases (“this is a safe space”) have earned the group’s devotion. Ross is played by improviser Colin Munch and it’s worth noting that he’s the only outlier in a cast best known for working together (two Fringe favourite duos sharing the stage with their closest collaborators). Into this established group comes newcomer Zoe (Heather Marie Annis, the most perfectly cast piece of a perfectly cast puzzle, carrying her clown character Morro’s moving vulnerability with her into a new context). Zoe begins to recount her “encounter”- she awoke in a field, her clothes on backwards, certain that her abduction had included a man whom she now recognizes as Ross.
The ensuing makeshift trial reveals many things, from alternate explanations for the group’s “encounters” to Ross’ true nature when he’s backed against a wall. Attempts are made to discredit Zoe, to reconcile conflicting accounts of the truth, to give the benefit of the doubt to a man the group knows and loves and trusts. It’s a very funny character comedy about wacky people who were abducted by aliens but some audiences found something familiar in the proceedings, something that reminded them of a beloved man named Jian and the women who were dragged through the mud in a tragic attempt to keep him on his pedestal. It reminded us of an icon named Bill, a kid named Brock, or any one of a huge number of devastating examples. The posters for Bright Lights featured the melancholy catchphrase of an infuriated population: “We Believe You”, but, still, more than a few audience members- among them, smart and engaged people of all demographics- just saw Bright Lights for the funny character comedy it most obviously is.
The first frontier of any Bright Lights discussion has to be the issue of authorial intent. One of the arguments I heard a couple times in the Fringe tent was “people are just reading too much into it”. While the cast and creative team behind the show insist that the most innocent interpretation of the text is indeed valid, they definitely refute the notion that the subtext is coincidental or somehow an invention of the socially conscious mind of the over-reaching audience. When I told Colin Munch (whose character benefits most from a denial of any subtext) about an encounter in the Fringe tent wherein someone yelled at me that my Ghomeshi-tinted interpretation was not supported by the text, he replied with a simple “[that person] is just wrong”.
The subtext was definitely intentional on Sandler’s part but the team also put a lot of time and energy into making sure the production supported every interpretation they could think of. Sandler commented that “all of these questions can be answered according to several realities, and each has been thought through to the conclusion”, adding an important storytelling reason why no clear answer was the right answer- “we tried to follow each of these eventualities all the way through, so people could draw their own conclusions, like a jury at a trial”. Laurel, Wayne and Dave are presented with a world of possible truths to grapple with and choose which to believe during the play’s trial, why should the audience be spared the same experience?
Whether or not Bright Lights is “about rape” is not the only question. There are dozens of interpretation crossroads over the course of the play and each one leads the interpreter down a new path of possibilities. Do aliens exist? Have Ross and Zoe met before? Is Ross lying? Is Zoe lying? Is this all happening in Wayne’s head? Okay, maybe not the last one. Or maybe the last one! There are no wrong answers, though I might argue that some are a little more right than others (for example: I don’t think there are alternate realities at play, I don’t think the whole story is happening on a space ship or in someone’s mind, and I don’t think anyone is travelling through time). In an attempt to pinpoint all the possibilities, I found myself mapping out all the choices that made some semblance of sense to me (a surely incomplete list). The results of that delirious exploration are below.
Many of the paths lead to similar places. At some point in nearly every scenario, the viewer has to decide whether or not they think Ross and Zoe have met prior to the events of the play. There are shockingly few scenarios in which no one is lying. Four courses end with the discovery that Ross is an alien (those are colour-coded dark green). There are nearly 20 courses that stem from Ross assaulting Zoe (colour-coded red). Almost every single possibility leads to open-ended questions, many of which are simply “why?”.
In conversations around the tent and outside the Tarragon theatre where Bright Lights had its Fringe run, I heard a lot of darkest timeline interpretations: he drugged her, he raped her, he left her in a field disoriented and unsure what had really happened. I also heard the occasional hopeful assertion that Ross is simply an alien in a fun sci-fi adventure story. One member of the creative team told me “I like to pretend that this was Ross’ first alien-earth recon mission and he really fucked it up, and after he exits he gets beamed up outside the church and gets reamed out by his superiors”, a scenario I found myself rooting for every single minute of Bright Lights but never really believed could be the truth.
The actors all have differing views on what actually happens in the play (or before the play begins) but tried not to impose their interpretation on the work itself. Munch says he played Ross as innocent, confused and defensive about Zoe’s accusation, a choice that keeps the most possibilities open- he could appear innocent because he is, or because he’s a practiced liar- though he reveals that, as a viewer, he’s more likely to believe a psychological reality (ie: assault) than a sci-fi phenomenon (ie: abduction). He’s made a darker, more definitive choice when it comes to Ross’ backstory and his relationship to the other characters, citing a white knight complex and youthful alienation as motivating factors for Ross seeking “social control” by starting the support group and getting involved with Laurel. Or maybe he’s actually an alien.
As Zoe, Annis leaned into the character’s confusion about what really happened to her in order to make room for a more optimistic version of the story: “I had to find a way to bring in the equal possibility of it being aliens (also super scary and confusing but in a different way), and of it being a big misunderstanding and playing the hope of searching for an explanation from Ross that would clear it all up”. Hope is a fascinating psychological choice for Zoe and one that puts her and the audience in the same mindset, rooting against the darkest timeline. Her confusion about the facts of her case is a double-edged sword, at once presenting the possibility that nothing bad happened and making it nearly impossible for her to prove it if something did.
The one piece of concrete evidence in the play is the marble that Zoe claims Ross has in his forearm, proving he was involved in her abduction. In the final moments of the production, the group members scatter to retrieve a marble they believe Ross dropped as he ran from the room. Ask any two members of a Bright Lights audience and they will tell you two tales of that marble: it exists; it doesn’t exist. Those who swear they saw it are more likely to believe in aliens (the alternative being a ruse that would make Ross both diabolical and an excessively good planner). Those who didn’t see it can believe what they want- maybe it’s there and they just didn’t see it; maybe Laurel, Wayne and Dave just love Ross so much that they’ve willed themselves into seeing evidence he’s an alien so that they don’t have to grapple with him being something worse.
This is what I believe: Aliens don’t exist. The marble is wishful thinking. I think Ross drugged Zoe and raped her and left her in a field with her clothes on backwards and the only way her brain could cope with the trauma was to fill in the gaps with a comparatively safe fantasy about aliens. I believe he honestly doesn’t recognize her, because she was just one of many. I think he started the group on some misguided mission to fix people he pities but his relationships with the members are real (certainly his account of why they joined the group is true). I think he pretends he’s married because he actually cares for Laurel but a deep-seated hatred of women (probably from a youth full of rejection and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement) forces him to keep her at a distance. I think he thinks he’s saving her.
I wish I didn’t believe that. I spent the entirety of Bright Lights hoping Ross would turn out to be an alien or that he just looked like someone Zoe knew or that an alien was wearing his face (which is also scary but still better). I get to take comfort in the fact that my smart, savvy, socially engaged friend Laura wholeheartedly believes that Bright Lights is about alien abductions and that many of the people I asked in the tent told me it was about loneliness, connection, community or faith. My Bright Lights reality is not everyone’s, that’s what makes the play worth fighting about.