Play portrays killers but doesn’t exploit
Robert Cushman

The miniature international festival known as Six Stages starts superlatively with a new work from DNA Theatre, headed by the much–feted but long-absent author and director, Hillar Liitoja.

Paula and Karl is a home-grown piece on a home-grown subject: Remove the final vowel from one name and add it to the other, and you will recognize the source.

Putting Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka on stage is not something I would have thought either possible or desirable. I would have been wrong. Frivolous though it may sound, the change of names adds the right amount of distance, gives the piece its own identity and helps remove any hint of exploitation. Mr. Liitoja takes us inside his character’s heads. More crucially and completely, he takes us inside their world.

I mean that literally. The production revives an old form of environmental theatre that has fallen into disuse and that I never much liked in the first place, Here, though, it justifies itself.

The play is staged in a private house. We are greeted brusquely at the door, told to line up against the wall and escorted downstairs. What awaits us is a spacious basement living room with a kitchen in the corner. We are told we may stand, sit or wander as we like, even look into the adjoining rooms, but must get out of the way if the actors require it.

As one of the last to arrive, I found it difficult to decide which of those already to decide which of those already present were actors; some I recognized as colleagues but others seemed remarkably relaxed and at home.

A video was playing, The Cider House Rules; I got quite caught up in it, since for a long time nothing else happened. Gradually it became clear the young blond woman slumped on the couch half-watching the movie, half-reading a book, and awesomely reposed was the only actor present; presumably she was Paula. Eventually a man joined her: her husband, Karl, home from work or somewhere.

As they greet one another, we in the audience switch automatically into different mode; we start to judge the performances. At first they seem like what might pass in a normal theatre for good naturalistic acting; at these close quarters they appear artificial, the voices preternaturally clear, the sentences too precisely formed.

But as they go on talking, as Paula prepares Karl a sandwich and he eats it, as he proudly produces a large newly bought dildo and they play with it, as they begin casually alluding to somebody female kept bound and gagged in another room; as all this happens, the style begins imposing itself and the relationship becomes real, complete and frighteningly easy.

Veronika Hurnik’s Paula, in particular, is more than just believable. It is the most completely, impregnably lived and inhabited performance I have ever seen; as closely detailed as the best screen acting but happening right there in front of us, unshielded and unedited.

During the action two detectives arrive, question the pair and ask Karl to show them around the house. We could have gone with them but it seemed more rewarding to sit and watch Paula as expressions of terror chased one another over her face.

Her role is perhaps the more rewarding, because it is the more varied of the two. Karl is pure unreachable bully: obviously capable of anything, though perhaps the most terrifying thing he does on stage is to crank up the volume of his CD player when Paula tries arguing with him.

James Thomson, having found the right implacable register for him, has to stay with it, but Ms. Hurnik is able to play both victim and manipulator, and to do strange  things to our sympathies. When the police leave, having found nothing, she still knows the game is up and pleads with Karl to end it now; we know her motives have nothing to do with compassion and everything to do with self-preservation, but we want to believe differently and to side with her. One reason for respecting the play is that, at its close, it finds the right way of stopping us.

James O’Reilly and Randall Lanthier as the investigators are in a different level, giving good, even humorous, cop-show performances.

The play has been tightly and superbly edited; some loose ends simply add to the conviction. The real victim, of course, we never see, hear or even learn much about; the play would be intolerable, in every sense, if we did.

Despite its initial, and probably excessive, intimidation tactics, the production avoids the kind of superior stance that has traditionally accompanied this kind of presentation; it doesn’t punish the audience for being there. It does what the theatre is supposed to do: show us humanity, which must include its phases of inhumanity.

National Post Feb 3/01