Written by Annie Baker. Directed by Mitchell Cushman. Until November 2 at Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue. CrowsTheatre.ca or 647-341-7390 ext. 1010.
Long — and we really mean long — live the live experience.
When Annie Baker’s play “The Flick” first premiered in New York City in 2013 — before it won Baker an Obie Award for Playwrighting, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, played a major role in nabbing her a 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant, and made Baker one of the best-known names in contemporary American theatre — audiences were walking out at intermission and threatening to cancel their subscriptions to the producing company. Not because it was offensive, or violent, or even all that provocative, but because it was long and, largely, very quiet. At the same time, fans of the play were celebrating the arrival of a new American classic and a meditative, hyperrealistic genre pioneered by Baker and defined by the play’s extended sequences in which the audience watches three employees at a failing independent cinema in small-town Midwestern America simply perform their minimum wage jobs: sweep, mop, banter, discuss the best way to clean the butter dispenser, skim money from the box office take, and set up the theatre’s 35-mm projector, one of the few left in the area.
The play’s divisive entry into the world is partly why its Toronto premiere, in a production by Outside the March Theatre and Crow’s Theatre that officially opened this week, was so hotly anticipated. The other part goes to devoted followers of the Baker religion, like yours truly, who will celebrate the rare instances of her work north of the U.S. border (previous Baker plays in Toronto have been “John” by The Company Theatre and “The Aliens” by the Coal Mine Theatre, both in 2017). The buzz surrounding “The Flick” meant that Toronto audiences were ready to sit in silence (which has proven true, since the production has already announced a one-week extension), having already been waiting patiently and quietly for years for the play to finally arrive.
But throughout director Mitchell Cushman’s faithful production of “The Flick,” it’s hard to understand early audiences’ resistance to its pace, style, and content, especially as Soulpepper Theatre’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” just down the street clocks at a similar three-hours-and-change and viewers don’t treat that like an endurance sport. The truth, as this production of “The Flick” demonstrates, is that Baker’s mastery of character, conflict, psychology, dialogue and setting demands that time to unfold in its quiet, subtle, and deeply moving way.
But Cushman’s pacing isn’t deliberately tedious. In fact, sometimes its rhythms (and, particularly, its comedy) hit on conventionally theatrical beats — Colin Doyle as the eldest employee, Sam, a 30-something who still lives at home, maybe hits a joke a bit faster or louder than would feel normal outside of a play; or maybe Sam and Avery, a 20-year-old shy, depressed film aficionado, and the newest employee with The Flick cinema, played by newcomer Durae McFarlane in an impressive Toronto theatre debut, leave some popcorn kernels behind for the sake of keeping a scene’s momentum going.
But even those small moments illuminate an aspect of Baker’s play, which the audience watches as if looking through the cinema screen from the other side, with Nick Blais’s beautifully dingy set design reflecting a bank of raked seating crowned by a projection booth back at us (much like the one we’re sitting in ourselves, watching the play). But it’s important that the imaginary film screen, or fourth wall in a theatrical terms, isn’t a mirror. Baker’s not asking that her play reflect daily life exactly as it is. We’re still in the world of theatre, where magic can exist: Avery has an uncanny ability to link any two actors through their filmographies, and Rose, the green-haired exhibitionist projectionist (played with remarkable heart by Amy Keating) will wildly dance her way through the entire theatre by herself only to show off. Even the projector itself has a moment to dazzle us with its dancing green, red and blue lights, kicking off the entire show and pulling focus in every scene transition.
Cushman mostly lets these heightened moments reveal the spectacle of being a human before plunging back into small talk and deep-rooted subtext, but sometimes can’t resist pushing them into overkill (there’s an unfortunate wig that undoes the team’s detailed work to build a realistic, believable world while it’s on view).
“The Flick” is about many things — so many that it’s likely anyone can read into it what they’d like: late-stage capitalism, labour, hope and expectations, mental health, art and expression, the ways we perform our identities for ourselves and others, and how all of that intersects with gender, age, and race. But it’s also about a moment of fundamental technological change in the movie-going experience, where film projectors that require human skill, training, and time were being replaced with digital projectors with a play button, and films themselves were being replaced with what Avery calls “digital movies,”— the difference between a postcard of the Mona Lisa and the painting itself. Seeing “The Flick” in 2019, it feels prophetic as more and more job forces are mechanized, with incredible financial consequences for its human workforce. But “The Flick” is more concerned with its human cost: what are the understated shades of lightness and darkness that are lost when we move from film to digital? What are the sacrifices we are willing to make for our individual convenience? Why do we still have the need to come together to watch a movie or a play and share space with other human beings? After a particularly awkward interaction, Avery, heartbreakingly, says that instead of engaging with another person, he “would rather be watching a movie.”
“The Flick” tells us that being a person in the world, and moving with and around other people in the world, is inconvenient, sometimes boring, sometimes frustrating, but mostly beautiful, if you’re willing to put in the effort. Cushman, his design team (including Richard Feren’s sound and Anahita Dehbonehie’s lobby design that turns the Streetcar Crowsnest into the lobby of The Flick, which is perhaps fun but not the most necessary use of an immersive experience from this immersive theatre company) and his cast had clearly done the difficult, awkward, messy work of bringing these people to life, and it’s our turn to do the much less arduous work of merely sitting with them, for however long they give us.
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