DNA Theatre stretches the envelope again
Tõnu Naelapea

Paula and Karl, a new play written and directed by DNA Theatre founder Hillar Liitoja, is a portrait of a sexual psychopath and his female accomplice revolving around the themes of use or abuse of power, and of free will, coercion and complicity. Remove the final vowel from one name and add it to the other, and the inspiration for this new work is evident.

The horrific and ghastly, never mind cruel actions of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka were odius and vile. Like many repugnant things, evil has a way of captivating mass attention. Public opinion here is hardly polarized. The vast majority of people were and are dumbfounded by the extent of the couple’s depravity. The behind the scenes machinations orchestrated by the duo to receive lighter sentences have offended many. As well, the rights of the families of the victims have been trampled over. Not only did they lose their daughters, but through legal legerdemain their right to privavy has been violated time and time again.

In view of the above, it would take considerable courage to stage a production, even loosely based, on Paul and Karla. Liitoja has never been a shrinking violet; indeed, it sometimes seems that he takes an almost perverse pleasure in making audiences squirm with discomfort when faced with the unexpected. Over the years DNA’s trademark has been strongly linked to creating an unusual audience environment. Upon entry into the performance area one is requested to make room for the actors if necessary; otherwise freedom to move is given. The question for the member of the public often is who is the audience, and who is in the cast?

Liitoja and DNA received accolades for the production This is what Happens in Orangeville, also based upon a violent crime that deeply affected a community and garnered wide-spread attention.

With Paula and Karl then, DNA is not treading on new ground. As can be expected, variables in audience reaction to such a production range from one extreme to another. The same can be said for reviewers. Robert Cushman of the “National Post” lauded Liitoja for superb editing, and commended the fact that the playwright focused on the sexual psychopath and his accomplice rather than the nameless victim. Cushman opined that the play would have been intolerable, in every sense, if the audience had learned about the victim.

The intended nature of the performance as stated was to create a mood of uncomfortable voyeurism and discomfort. Cushman felt that the intimidation tactics were perhaps excessive, but concluded that the production avoided any stance of superiority, a trap that is easy to fall into. For the reviewer, Paula and Karl did what theatre is supposed to do: show the audience humanity, which must include its phase of inhumanity.

Reviewer Rachel Giese of alternative newspaper "Eye" disagreed, finding that plays such as this are usually much better in theory than in practice. Giese commended the excellent cast (James Thomson as Karl, Veronika Hurnik as Paula, and James O’ Reilly and Randall Lanthier as police detectives) for delivering the playwright’s intentions. The acting was more bullying than provocative, and in the hands of lesser actors would have been an utter failure. The focus of the cast is emphasized, as well as the meticulous direction of Liitoja. Environmental design – space, lighting and sound – are by Steve Lucas and Steve GordonMarsh, dramaturgical support by John Delacourt.

Yet Geise found flaws with the script, considering it a trite meditation on the banality of evil that fails to illuminate the souls of the serial killers, and also fails to create sympathy for their victims. Giese finds that during the two-and-a-half hour production very little happens.

Others certainly disagree. It is precisely this devilishly dichotomous approach that Liitoja and DNA have honed to a keen point. Love it or hate it, DNA’s work is not your run of the mill Mirvish production.

Paula and Karl was selected as the headline event at the Six Stages Festival. It runs until February 25th, Tuesday to Sunday at 109 Niagara Street (King and Bathurst area). Performances commence at 7:00 P.M. sharp. Further information by telephone (416) 504-7529.