Reviewed by James Karas
Theory, Norman Yeung’s new play at the Tarragon Theatre, is so intellectually elevated and so emotionally intense, that you should sharpen your brain cells and tune up your emotional antennae before leaving for the theatre.
Professor Isabella (Sascha Cole) “teaches” film theory at a university. She is young, brilliant, ambitious, a visionary and a rule-breaker who wants to open the minds of students, no make that, she wants them to open their own minds. No, she is not teaching philosophy from Plato to Rawls and she probably considers what many of us may consider teaching as beneath her. She has a large class but we only get to see four of her students.
Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech and Sascha Cole by Cylla von Tiedemann
The four students are an assorted lot but what really matters is that they are all geniuses. They know all about the films on the course and they can talk in academic lingo that will send you scampering to your elevated intellect to keep up with the academic jargon and you are very smart if you can keep up with them.
But they are also very touchy. With their comprehensive knowledge and ability to express their views, it seems a waste of time for them to attend class. They should all go to the common room and have a complicated or is it integrated coffee and become professors.
The professor teaching the course is white and her wife is black. Or should I say African-Canadian or African-American. I don’t think I can say Negro because, if I understood correctly, the word has been banned from normal conversation regardless of context. And the “n word” has been eradicated and if Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad and a myriad of other authors used it in their time and context, they and the word should be consigned a circle of hell for Users of Offensive Words Ex Post Facto.
The students in the course tackle a large array of films by the likes of D. W. Griffiths, Sergei Eisenstein and a number of other directors, French, German and Latin American, mostly unfamiliar to me.
The films present political and social commentaries that brilliant professors and razor-sharp students can discern but hoi polloi probably do not.
The students walk out of class, send offensive (really offensive) emails and complain to the dean. The numerous (far too numerous) postings go into dangerous territory when one student posts a photo of the professor that he/she cuts up and covers it with blood from his/her own hand. There is a mystery about who is posting them and it creates considerable tension.
Sascha Cole and Audrey Dwyer by Cylla von Tiedemann
The question that occurred to me as I watched the plot develop into dangerous territory was this: how can anyone who is so smart be so stupid? Isabella could not see beyond her intellectual arrogance of a know-it-all who pretends to let her students discover things for themselves. When students are complaining about you (some? all?) maybe you should get the message that you are doing something terribly wrong.
The main plot is about Isabella’s interaction with the four students played by Bilal Baig, Asha James, Kyle Orzech and Anthony Perpuse, and the Dean (Fabrizio Filippo. And there is the subplot about her relations with her wife Lee (Audrey Dwyer).
Joe Pagnan’s set serves as a classroom that easily converts into Isabella’s apartment. Projection designer Cameron Davis provides us with the countless messages that are shown on the stage as the menace keeps mounting.
Director Esther Jun sets and maintains a brisk pace as actors enter and exit in quick succession frequently slamming doors.
Much of what happens is fodder for a good play and a fine production but much of it is smothered in intellectual and academic dross that takes away from our enjoyment.