Toronto Noir: smart evocation

Plunk Henry is authentically noir

Toronto: Toronto Noir, a Cheeky Magpie production and part of this year’s SummerWorks Festival, is a smart evocation of film noir cast into the landscape of cotemporary Toronto. It tells three interwoven stories – kind of like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts for the stage. These stories were sourced from a collection of stories of the same name.

For my money the strongest piece deals with a bass-player named Plunk Henry (played by real-life bass-player, Murray Foster) who through misadventure kills a jealous husband and has to dispose of the body, which he stows inside his bass-case. His journey into darkness involves a hilarious ride on a streetcar. Of the three pieces, the Plunk Henry story most self-consciously evokes the noir world of soulless losers but does so to such fantastic effect that it feels like a reinvention rather than a simple homage. Unlike the other two stories, Foster doesn’t interact with any other performer and delivers what is effectively a monologue that never , not for a nano-second, feels like a one-person show. The language is spare and evocative and Foster’s performance is astonishing: one of those too rare moments where the performance is so fused with the character that it appears effortless and natural. It helps that Foster has a voice made to speak noir and his delivers the most fantastic observations in a perfectly pitched deadpan (a personal favourite: urine never smelt so much like freedom). He even keeps time with a real bass.

The other two stories are strong but flow through more familiar narrative terrain, there aren’t the same twists and jolts. However, there is still immense pleasure to be had from the performances and situations. One story deals with a 30-something actress’(Sarah Mennell) attempts to undermine a younger, upstart actress to whom she’d once given a “if you want to be an actor, give up hope now” speech; unfortunately Honey (Emily Andrews), along with the other students missed the irony of the advice.  The third story involves a love-triangle that includes the owner of an illegal booze can (and underground boxing ring!), played by Jack Grinhaus, in the Distillery District and a police detective (Adrian Griffin). In keeping with the noir world they get into a sparing match and the tension of the unspoken truth of their relationship is nicely maintained throughout (with a nice, authentic -feeling twist at the end). Perhaps the most refreshing element of these two stories is how much they recreate the feel of contemporary Toronto in a totally unselfconscious way. Gentrification and the vagaries of the film-industry feature and would resonate deeply with a Vancouver audience.

The direction by Heather Davies (who adapted the stories) is sharp with each story arc marked by a blown up nourish photograph of the main protagonist. This is the first production for Cheeky Magpie who are committed to bringing Canadian short stories to the stage. If this is the standard, I eagerly look forward to the next installment.


By Andrew Templeton