Tideline at Hart House Theatre
Liam McConnell – ARTS EDITOR
It opens on Wilfred, wearing black and white and speaking in front of an unseen judge, delivering a tale of sexual gratification and forgotten names, while a tableau of onlookers wait in the misty background like silent specters.
With that, the first of many sets of opposite concepts are combined into a strange middle ground: intimacy and anonymity. As the play continues, many more sets of opposing notions are combined into something strange and new, existing in the space between one and the other. The play itself unfolds in a state of surreality – somewhere between the concrete and the abstract, therefore creating within the viewer a sense of unease, confusion, and disorientation.
With liquid deftness, the cast guides Wilfred in and out of both dreams and reality, allowing the two to overlap and refusing to permit him — or, by extension, the audience — to find solid emotional footing. The stage is rarely abandoned by the bulk of the cast: instead they stalk the background at the ready as ancillary characters they have just played or are about to play, never allowing Wilfred a moment of decompression or recollection. Blending another binary, Wilfred can never be sure if these apparitions exist to aid or sabotage him, and indeed they do both.
The combination of dream and reality allow for the convergence of another set of opposites that become a central theme: life and death. The dead simply won’t stay that way, much to Wilfred’s amazement and frustration.
The tone shifts in the second act, as the play’s dark but juvenile sense of humour fades into something more sinister. Wilfred finds himself in an unaccommodating and foreign yet familiar land, breaking his back to carry out his mission. This mission begins to transform in purpose as the cast eventually come to inhabit their credited roles. One by one they join him; an unlikely alliance bound by an unspeakable tragedy that they all share. They become a team fuelled by positivity and hope, guiding one another and the audience through the mire of destruction and degeneracy that permeates every line of the play’s shocking and challenging second half.
Characters once dressed in black and white eventually begin to appear in grey, as if they subconsciously acknowledge that the best they can hope for in a world of hope and despair, identity and anonymity, good and evil, sin and redemption, and black and white is some combination of the two: a grey middle ground. They can’t let go of their pasts or what they’ve done, but they can allow themselves catharsis and self-forgiveness.
The design of the stage contributes to the disorienting effect, as everything from the backdrop to the tables are just slightly off-kilter. It is not only the script itself that combines two normally divergent elements: the stage juts out into the audience and bridges the artificial divide that separates them. This combination of stage and gallery, unusual for Hart House, bring the action to the viewer, making them complicit and involved.
From an enormously capable cast, particularly strong performances are exhibited by Augusto Bitter and Kwaku Okyere, who, along with their main roles, each play several smaller roles, ranging in type from the fiercely effeminate to the drunkenly obsequious to the bitterly furious and the crushingly heartbroken. They glide through their many characters’ winding emotional labyrinths with the skill and confidence only found in truly gifted actors.
One leaves Hart House after Tideline feeling like they’ve just run an emotional gauntlet. Wajdi Mouawad’s script calls for unrelenting intensity, and Director Ken Gass chose a cast capable of rising to the exhausting task.
Tideline runs at Hart House Theatre until October 1st. For for information, visit harthouse.ca/tideline