Coal Mine Theatre has a small storefront space on Danforth Avenue, Toronto and it is a splendid small company that produces high quality and adventurous drama. It gave us Annie Baker’s intriguing absurdist play The Aliens in 2017 and this is year it is treating us with her 2017 play The Antipodes.
Performers have been telling stories since time immemorial and The Antipodes does tell a story of sorts but it is telling a story about telling stories. Eight people sit around a table and seven of them, perhaps six, are employed to tell a story or stories. Sandy, the boss, confirms to the older employees that they know what the job involves and instructs the new ones about what the job is. This is a paid, full-time job not a friendly gathering where people exchange tales.
He wants them to be creative, different, and produce something that will change the world. Who are these people? They are being paid for what they do and are told that they will not work past seven or on weekends. What they are looking for may be world-changing but we don’t know what it is, why they are looking for whatever they are looking for, who these people are, how they were chosen and who is paying them.
We learn that they just finished a session about Heathens and start by relating embarrassing stories about sexual experiences. They veer off into the meaning of time and make cryptic references to other stories like the mysterious Alejandra’s and that of the incredible Jerry Madigan and Paragon. Sandy’s perky assistant Sarah pokes her head in throughout the play and looks after orders of food and other needs of the story tellers. She later becomes one of the storytellers with a personal experience involving an evil stepmother and a haunted house.
They veer off into dialogues that makes sense to some of the cast and maybe to to some of the audience but I don’t follow it. Is it perhaps not intended to be followed?
There are many background issues that are brought up during the “breaks.” Sandy’s wife is ill, Eleanor’s mother has dementia and her house is flooded destroying almost everything except some childhood stories written by Eleanor.
Josh has ID and perhaps worse issues and is not being paid. Dave’s father shoots himself in the face in front of his mother. Danny M2 tells a long story about looking after chickens and making sure the fox does not get to them. He is called to Sandy’s office and never returns. No explanation is given.
We find out more about the operation slowly and opaquely. There is a large corporate structure hoping to make money from the story tellers. This group is one of many and they have been at it for some three months and there may be doubts about their productivity and continuity. Do the stories told by this group or any group have any relevance? What is happening in the outside world?
The realistic telling of some personal stories becomes more frightful and we meet Max, or the voice of Max. The people in the room put on goggles to see him. Is he the CEO of the corporation? Is he a monster? He is one of the countless things in the play that we don’t really understand.
The play moves toward its tragic end (I will not disclose it) opaquely, indirectly, ineluctably and mysteriously. We are not sure how or why the apparent process of storytelling and story-collecting began, how well the process worked and how it ends. One of the philosophical questions raised in the play is the passage of time. Can one hundred thousand years in another dimension pass in a few seconds in our dimension?
This is a complex, elusive, highly allusive and fascinating play. Annie Baker provides some humour, guffaws in fact, and movement so that the heavy arguments are balanced with apparently lighter stories about the lives of her characters. The spectator, I suggest, is well advised to pay strict attention to the side stories as well as many details of the stories told.
That said, let us praise the the director Ted Dykstra for his expert handling of this complex work. It flows as if it were ordinary play that needs about one- and three-quarter hours to unfold. No small achievement.
Ample praise is deserved by the cast who are so superb that they make the play seem simple. Ari Cohen is the nice boss who explains what the job is all about about we soon see the personal and professional undercurrents in his life. Near the end he takes off his baseball cap as a good indicator that worse is about to come.
Sarah Dodd plays the likeable, attractive Eleanor who at the start tells us about losing her virginity as a pleasant event but later we find much unpleasantness in her life. The only other woman in the play is the chirpy and efficient assistant Sarah played by Kelsey Verzotti. She tells a serious story and in both capacities as the perky assistant and the traumatized storyteller she gives a superb performance.
Colin A. Doyle plays Josh, Joseph Zita plays Brian, Nadeem Phillip plays Adam, Murray Furrow plays Danny M1, Simon Bracken is M2, and Joshua Browne plays Dave. They gave superb individual performances and accomplished ensemble acting with superb energy flowing among them despite the complexity of the play.
Go see it. And pay attention.
The Antipodes by Annie Baker continues until May 15, 2022, at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, M4J 1N4. www.coalminetheatre.com/