Bang Bang: a darkly comic attack on appropriation - Drew Rowsome - MyGayToronto
Bang Bang: a darkly comic attack on appropriation 02 February 2018
by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Joseph Michael Photography
By this point in time one has unreasonably come to expect that a new Kat Sandler play will be darkly comic, full of unexpected moments and plot twists, all while tackling big themes and base impulses with wit and solid construction. That's a lot of pressure to put on a playwright/director, but if the prolific Sandler (Mustard, Late Night, Bright Lights, Liver, Cockfight, Sucker, Delicacy, Rock) is feeling the heat, it doesn't show. Bang Bang is a brave venture into dangerous territory and it is a resounding success: very, very funny and very, very thought-provoking.
The official synopsis - "A white playwright uses the shooting of an unarmed young Black man by a police officer as a 'jumping off point' for his hit play that is soon to be adapted into a major movie. As Hollywood comes knocking for the writer, he makes a surprise visit to the home of the officer involved" - is itself only a "jumping off point." Sandler stands the black vs white paradigm on its head right off the bat in order to question racial privilege and all assumptions on any side or variation. It is a ballsy pussy move and it pays off: it very quickly becomes impossible to form an opinion about anything before it is undercut, spun topsy-turvey, or proven faulty.
That this is done while getting consistent and hearty laughter from an audience is remarkable. The lines and jokes are funny in a lacerating way, piercing our perceptions and attitudes with a nasty preciseness. The laughter comes from pockets of the theatre, accompanied by questions of "Did she just go there?" and "Should I be offended?", with uncomfortable beats of surprise followed by full-gutted guffaws. The list of contentious topics touched on is dauntingly extensive and covers just about every Facebook/Twitter war of the last few years.
Of course none of these themes can be resolved theatrically without becoming pedantic and denying the opposing viewpoint, so Sandler wraps it all in meta-theatricality and launches a fusillade of theatre jokes and self-satire that is breathtaking in its hilarity. Which makes her point perfectly: just who does a story belong to and who has the right to tell it? Where does this white girl get the nerve to write about Black Lives Matter? The dizzying shifting of viewpoints and ideology layered with punchlines is tricky to time, the laughs could happen (or not) anywhere, fortunately Sandler has a dream cast who can pivot on a dime and land a gag with finesse.
Jeff Lillico (Tom on the Farm, Cinderella) is the playwright and he is sleazily ambitious, possibly well-meaning, and utterly fraudulent. The audience has to simultaneously embrace him and hate him which Lillico achieves with nerd-next-door earnestness. The point where Bang Bang pivots, is a recitation by Lillico that is sincerely heartbreaking, shockingly horrific, and uproariously funny all at the same time. All the cross currents and confusions fuse in an emotional maelstrom that is as disturbing as it is mesmerizing.
Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah (Prince Hamlet, Contempt) grows from mouse to monster to martyr and then whiplashes back and forth without a false note. She fawns giddily over the teen idol who wants to be a real actor, as believably as she melts down. Sebastien Heins (Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera, Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play) could coast on looks, physicality and charisma, as his wannabe movie-star character does, but instead he subtexts layers of vulnerability and anger that seethe beneath the pretty boy shtick. It is a glorious comic riff on teen idols, pretentious actors and theatre itself, with a bitter last line that resonates with tragedy.
Heins' vaudevillian sidekick Richard Zeppieri gives a master class in comic relief then ricochets from voice of reason to doofus to the heart of the matter while using a giant cookie for some Streepian scene-stealing. Anchoring it all is Karen Robinson (Prince Hamlet, Schitt's Creek) who runs an emotional gauntlet, steely one moment and breaking down the next, while delivering withering diva putdowns and side-eye worthy of Bette Davis in her prime. Robinson can get a laugh with a grammar corrections and she can command the stage with a look.
Bang Bang is almost an embarrassment of riches, to the point where the multiple climaxes in search of a resolution that Bang Bang admits does not exist, becomes exhausting and oddly anti-climactic. But with so many ideas landing on target and a blunt dissection of our failures as human beings, it is a rich experience without easy answers. While Sandler has set out to do exactly what Bang Bang condemns and satirizes, she has, with what she gratefully calls a "collaborative act," succeeded. And while we'll all be mulling over Bang Bang for awhile, we'll all be waiting with bated breath for whatever is next.
Bang Bang continues until Sun, Feb 18 at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St. factorytheatre.ca