Thursday Theatre Review: The Robbers

Some plays are put on to make money. Not a lot, maybe, but at least some token amount to justify the production. So they need to speak to their audiences, to move them without pushing them too far out of their comfort zone. And then, there are plays that couldn't give a damn about the cash. Or the audience, for that matter.

The University College Drama Program's production of The Robbers is of the latter variety. It is a raucous carnival of a show more interested in nurturing its performers than entertaining the crowd. And, funnily enough, I'm actually pretty comfortable with that.

In it's original form, The Robbers tells the story of two brothers--Karl, the beloved prodigal, and Franz, the embittered schemer. Franz would like very much to usurp Karl's claim to their father's estate (and his girlfriend), and achieves his goal through a series of lies and distortions. Oddly, Karl's response to his brother's machinations is to become a Robin Hood-esque prince of thieves and go on a killing spree. The play caused a bit of a sensation when it was first performed in 1781, and made a star of playwright Friedrich Schiller. Apparently, 18th century German audiences got all hot and bothered with frank interrogations of religion, morality and free will. And really, who doesn't?

Still, any resemblence between Schiller's original and the UCDP production is somewhat coincidental. Director Johanna Schall and the cast take the original text as a starting point for a kind of textual exploration, much more about rhythm, sound and movement thant the bare text. It's very much an academic exercise--and I don't mean that in a perjorative sense. This show is all about learning and exploration for the young actors, something totally appropriate for a university-level performance. Interestingly, the academic context completely changes the theatre-going experience. The program was a baffling array of found-text, actor interviews and Edward Gorey illustrations. The audience was a mix of academics and barely twentysomething couples, many of whom appeared to be on first dates ("Hmmm. I'm 19 and super awkward. Where should I take this hot girl on a date? I know! A textual exploration of an 18th century German Sturm und Drang play!"). And the actors were all very young and very earnest. And a little emo.

Of course, all the emphasis on academic exploration renders vast swathes of the show almost totally incomprehensible. That's bad, right? Not necessarily. Director Schall, on loan from Germany and grand daughter of the great Bertolt Brecht, has given the show an energy best described as 'nervous exhiliration'. And there's plenty of Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt on display here- there are descriptive signs, there's music, and the audience is constantly reminded that they are, in fact, watching a piece of fiction. The whole thing is set up as a 'play within a play', where Schiller's text is performed by the students of a private school. A little hackneyed, perhaps, but textbook Brecht.

Beyond the staging, the really endearing thing about this production is the cast. Let's be clear- this is not a master class in performance. The actors struggle with the text, and the broad playing style tends to undermine a lot of Schiller's characters and relationships. But my god, it looked like they were having fun. This is a joyful production from start to finish, a noisy, confusing celebration of 14 young people flexing their creative muscles and taking all kinds of artistic risks. That's something almost impossible to find in Toronto's professional theatre, and makes The Robbers a strangely rewarding experience.

The Robbers continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until February 9th. For tickets and information, call 416 978 1505 or visit

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