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Thursday Theatre Review: Benevolence

Tarragon Theatre's production of Benevolence is classic Morris Panych. And this is both a blessing and a curse.

Panych's new show marks his seventh production with the Tarragon. It tells the story of Oswald Eichersen (Tom Rooney), a miserable orthotic shoe salesman whose random act of kindness towards the homeless Terrence Lomy (Stephen Ouimette) spirals into a series of violent life-changing events. Careers, relationships and even identities are all swept away in the wake of Lomy's mad scheming.

The play features Panych's trademark dialogue- fast-paced, explosive and almost musical to the ear. The characters are no less pyrotechnic. They are unpredictable, selfish and all slightly insane, but somehow manage to cling to a convincing humanity. Panych has a real gift for creating his own unique universes on stage. His characters speak and move in a space that resembles are own, but obeys radically different laws of reality. Benevolence is surrealism wearing a realist mask. The world Panych creates is irresistably bonkers, and I was happy to spend a little time in it.

Unfortunately, the magic of Panych's theatrical world makes the play's shortcomings all the more disappointing. Benevolence is a play that tries to accomplish much, but consistently fails to cross the finish line. It ruminates on the meaning of happiness and identity, but never properly articulates what it is trying to discover. I don't think theatre should be about providing concrete answers, but it should at least phrase the question in a clear way. The characters also fail to make any kind of a journey, to change and learn from their experiences. Lomy is static, and Oswald's arc seems to fuzz into obscurity by the end of the show.

The problem, I think, lies in the meeting of Panych the playwright and Panych the director. For Panych the playwright, the ambiguity of language and human motivation is a playground. The script revels in uncertainty and question marks, and leaves itself wide open for interpretation. Panych the director is also enamoured with the ambiguous, steadfastly refusing to nail down anything about the characters or what the play is attempting to communicate. Trouble is, for the themes and characters to be intelligible to the audience, the director and performers have to make clear choices. The themes don't need to be on a flashing neon sign, but the actors need to know what they are trying to say. Ultimately, the job of the director is to interpret the script, but Panych seems happy to let it wallow in vagueness. As a result, the play comes off as rather unsatisfying.

Despite the lack of clarity, the actors nevertheless put across some engaging performances. Rooney's comedic delivery is pitch-perfect, and Gina Wilkonson's protrayal of a prostitute is simultaneously hilarious and surprisingly touching. And I can't say enough about the all-around awesomeness of Ken McDonald's set. It's both a convincing depiction of a run-down porn theatre, and a strange, metaphysical convention centre for lost souls. A place, and a place apart.

Benevolence is well-performed, well-written and genuinely funny. Too bad the surface fireworks can't conceal a play that, at it's heart, is unsure where it is going and what it is trying to say.

Benevolence runs at the Tarragon Theatre mainspace until October 27th. For tickets, visit Totix.ca.

Photo: Tom Rooney as Oswald Eichersen and Stephen Ouimette as Terence Lomy. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.


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