Thursday, February 23, 2012
THEATRE REVIEW: HIGH LIFE
23 FEB 2012
Pictured, L-R: Mike Ross, Michael Hanrahan,
Oliver Dennis, Diego Matamoros
TORONTO - In theatre, it’s often not so much where you’re going that counts, but rather the ride that you take to get there. All of which leads, in its way, to Soulpepper’s revival of playwright Lee MacDougall’s breakout comedy HIGH LIFE, a black-as-ink look at four drug addicts that first saw the light of stage in an acclaimed and intimate co-production of World Stage and Crow’s Theatre back in 1996, which spawned a commercial revival and a national tour.
This latest take opened Tuesday at the Young Centre under the direction of Stuart Hughes, featuring a cast that includes Diego Matamoros, Michael Hanrahan, Oliver Dennis and Mike Ross. Matamoros is cast as Dick, the group’s putative leader and the man with the plan that is going to leave them all on easy street — which, of course, to a bunch of morphine addicts like these, is in a far different part of town than most of us might recognize.
But Dick can’t pull off what he’s planned all by himself, which leads him to recruit, in order of appearance, the recently-released-from-the-slammer Bug (Hanrahan), the medically challenged Donnie (Dennis) and the smooth and youthful Billy (Ross), each of whom will bring a special skill to the caper.
Recruiting them is one thing. Keeping them from killing each other before they can rip off some bank machines in an elaborate but still crude caper, however, is quite another. It’s a task complicated at every turn by Bug — after having already participated in the ending of at least one life, he has developed a rather loose definition of what constitutes murder. And that definition could prove even more elastic, when he is forced to recall some of Donnie’s past transgressions or to consider the possibility of transgressions yet to come from the cocky young Billy, who delights in trying to pluck the stinger from the scorpion that is Bug, without drawing serious harm upon himself.
These are arguably four of the most memorably and delightfully sordid characters in the Canadian theatrical canon, operating as they do in a milieu as alien to most theatregoers as the far side of the moon. Indeed, one suspects the free-wheeling use of hypodermics on stage might have had something to do with the medical crisis that interrupted the opening night performance and from which the afflicted patron is reported to be recovering nicely.
Happily, those characters are realized in four strong performances, for all that each of the actors gets to the heart of his character in ways far different than the actors who originated the roles. And while Hughes must be credited for helping to shape those performances, he fails, finally, to fuse them into an impressive whole, thereby creating the edge-of-your-seat, waiting-for-the-grenade to explode kind of comedic tension that initially propelled HIGH LIFE into the stratosphere.
Instead of concentrating on the crazed emotional milieu in which the action occurs, he gets caught up in the setting instead, trying to gain an advantage from Lorenzo Savoini’s oddly fussy set and Steven Hawkins’ similarly overwrought lighting. Indeed, even with a cast of this calibre, Hughes even feels compelled to dress up the drug use with Paul Humphrey’s sound stylings, putting buttons on performances that frankly need none, and proving in the process that putting bells and whistles on a merry-go-round won’t turn it into a rollercoaster. It’s still an impressive ride, mind you, and it gets you where you want to go, but the ride just isn’t as thrilling as it could be.