Toronto
2 min

Hearty fare

These characters eat more than just dinner

PLACE SETTING. Clinton Walker, Erika Hennebury, Greg MacArthur and Ruth Madoc-Jones of Stem. Credit: Xtra files

The poster for Stem reads, “Drink, talk, smoke, drink, laugh, eat.” There’s plenty of laughter and talk, but the eating, drinking and smoking are left to the spectators’ imaginations as we are taken on a magical journey through a unique blend of verbal and physical theatre that appears, at first glance, to be all talk and no action.



Seated around an oversized dinner table, the cast begins to speak casually. Before long their conversation becomes anything but. Four performers (Clinton Walker, Greg MacArthur, Erika Henne- bury and Ruth Madoc-Jones) display beautiful comic timing combined with facial expressions so distinct and engaging that one never loses a sense of separate personalities in a play that never fully identifies its characters. And this is one of the many strengths of Stem as the players reveal so much and so little about themselves.



We know that Clinton loves the film Pete’s Dragon, Greg is obsessed with a phone message, Erika finds solace in meditation and Ruth identifies with an Elvis song. But the emotional nuance is so finely layered that we end up marvelling at how such a simple event could be so entertaining. Assembled over many dinner conversations, the script is an engaging meta-narrative culminating in startling stage effects that speak of the lightheartedness and the darkness that the evening encapsulates.



Sexuality and gender are subtly hinted at and, at times, suggest a bone of contention between the two gay men and the two straight women regarding appropriate humour. But we are never altogether certain of the sexuality of the players as it is only toyed with and never articulated – just like a real dinner party. One tirade about Mel and Marilyn Lastman, between Erika and Ruth, was a wonderfully irreverent bitchfest that might have used a little more political foundation to flesh out the ribald remarks.



Brilliant set and lighting design by Steve Lucas and JP Robichaud gave playing areas sharp physical and emotional focus. At one point the entire cast leaves the set and assembles outside the theatre by a large window, smoking, while the audience hears taped conversation. On opening night an unsuspecting participant was startled from a stage door solace when MacArthur ran from the space, swinging the door open with a narrow miss. But all’s well that ends well: The non-patron joined the actors for a cigarette.



This unexpected addition is the magic of Stem: One never really knows what to expect, from start to finish. Filled with uncomfortable silences, bursts of anger, laughter and even some rambunctious climbing about on the table, the entire evening, jointly directed by the cast, gels beautifully and provides the audience with a hilarious and wildly entertaining look into what so many of the dinner parties we attend must be like for all those voyeuristic flies on the wall. And the taco jokes are fabulous!



* Stem continues at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander St) until Sun, Jun 1; call (416) 975-8555.