There is something hopeful, noble and even magnificent about new theatre companies. They have the courage and audacity to believe they have something new and worthy to share in a community that is already besot with too many starving artists.
Last evening I had the privilege of seeing the debut production Always on Alert by the spanking new and madly ambitious Iconoclasm Theatre Company also to be known as ITC. http://iconoclasmtheatre.org/index.html . According to their website, the founding members Sandra Dagovic, David Lichty, Regine Tiu, and Waleed Ansari have made it their goal not only to entertain but also to “challenge audiences to examine culture, religion, and their symbols”.
Co-founder, philosophy student, director and playwright David Lichty was first baptized into the Toronto theatre scene with his 2012 SummerWorks play I Believe in Atheists. This new script appears to be a continuation of the first with similar themes and questions. What is the meaning of life? What is our greater purpose? Does God exist? What happens to us when we die?
In a nutshell, the play centers round Donald (played by Rob Wierzbicki) a conflicted nihilist living in a isolated government outpost in Alert, Nunavut with three other scientists. Their sole duty is to push the apocalyptic “nuclear button” should politics warrant the need to end the world. Donald’s moral melancholy has led him to believe that all existence is “inconvenient”, especially those of his fellow scientists. Throughout the play he spouts his nihilist rhetoric, challenging the other characters to negate his views with their own Christian or existentialist values. They don’t have a chance against his skepticism and sociopathic righteousness.
There is something anachronistic about this play. It’s vaguely reminiscent of paranoia surrounding the Cold War when the possibility of annihilation was so much more present in our collective psyche.
Lichty’s direction controlled the frenetic energy of Wierzbicki who carried the play as if it is a one-man show. This young actor has great presence and potential. He mastered huge chunks of diatribe, and gave them shape, substance and believability. Not an easy task with a character deliberately written to be an unlikeable anti-hero. At times, Wierzbicki may have indicated too much and consequently threw away some great moments of what could have been both fun and macabre. For example, there are nuggets of absurdity that lost some of their power because we knew they were coming. In particular the physical interactions between Donald and his fellow scientists felt somewhat underplayed and rushed. Otherwise, the pace flowed well and the company played the irony found in the text.
Kudos go out to actors Greg Wilmont, Hayden Finkelshtstain and especially Marc Blanchard for their wonderfully present and controlled performances. Without giving away too much of the plot, these characters were more than the recipients of Donald’s philosophical ranting. In their states of non-existence, they hugely contradict Lichty’s argument that existence has no meaning. These three fine actors also reaffirm the adage “There are no small roles.”
The venue is the studio space at the historic Alumnae Theatre on Berkeley Street. Ironically the oppressive heat in that space last night added to the oppressive isolation of the outpost even though it’s set in Nunavut. The tech team performed miracles in what is a challenging space. Subtle lighting design and a cluttered and cost-effective re-purposed set design by Waleed Ansari added to that sense of growing madness, alienation and our inherent need to connect to the world and each other regardless of our religious and more beliefs. Sound, costumes and makeup were also flawless.
There’s something melancholic about Existentialist Nihilism. I suppose it’s the coming-of-age disappointment in the realization that we’re actually not the center of the universe. Questioning the meaning of our existence seems to be a universal rite of passage for those on the cusp of adulthood.
Last night, I was reminded of Peggy’s Lee’s song “Is That All There Is?” There’s no doubt this play and this company deals with questions relevant to all young people. Always On Alert is both thought-provoking and meets ITC’s mandate to challenge their audiences. I left the theatre inspired by the company’s vision and their integrity of purpose. I look forward to watching them evolve over the months and years ahead.