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A dark Night of political absurdity

Liam Lacey

As has become customary at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre this season, the business of lining up and getting inside has become part of the theatre-going experience.

In the case of DNA Theatre’s production of Estonian playwright Toomas Hussar’s brutal political absurdist play Ultimate Night, audience participation is a grim prospect.

The entire event is distinctly and intentionally user-unfriendly. No programs are handed out. Ushers in military caps brusquely wave the audience through in groups of two. Some are waved through to their seats; others are asked to empty their pockets for inspection.

Inside the theatre, the set – a slightly messy apartment – is divided from the audience by wire-mesh fencing. A man (Ken McDougall), dressed in an old-fashioned dark suit with a narrow tie, sits, fiddling with the radio dial.

The lights do not go down as the play starts.

Another man (Sky Gilbert), wearing a purple-black animal mask, enters the apartment from a rear door, takes off his coat, mask and hat and sits down. He is dressed identically to the first. For a long time, they do not speak. Then the first man says emphatically, “I took the streetcar.”

There is a brief piece of information dropped about a missing man.

The men begin a very strange conversation that continues thorough most of the play. There are pauses so long they make Harold Pinter’s characters sound like rock radio morning deejays. The men stare at each other. They talk about inanities: turning the radio off and on; lights and candles; the streetcar.

They are peculiarly fastidious about details, like Samuel Beckett’s vaudevillian tramps in Waiting for Godot. But unlike Beckett’s tramps, the absurdity springs out of a more concrete source; they are engaged in something sinister, though it remains hidden until the play’s end.

One man lights candles and begins reciting his “poems,” which are like Hallmark cards written by a schizophrenic. There are obsessive, morbidly sentimental disjointed narratives about lost dogs and sad wolves, and the moon.

About the point where there seems little doubt that the play must be drawing to a baffling close, a third character enters: a simple-minded escaped prisoner named Leo, who has a bad stutter. One of the men pulls out a walkie-talkie and calls for security, but security refuses to come.

What follows is as swift and vicious as the rest of the play has been slow and apparently silly.

What does all this mean? Like other successful minimalist works, the meanings are multilevel and somewhat open-ended. But given the Estonian background, the obvious parallels of world powers making deals to sacrifice the weak are not hard to see. Beyond that, it’s a strangely illuminating examination of the psychopathology of power: the odd incapacity of the two men to feel properly is a product of their political status.

The skill of the acting and direction in this production have an almost subliminal impact: the starkness of the presentation, the bizarre humour and director Hillar Liitoja’s strategically glacial pacing – okay, at times a bit too glacial – conspire to sucker punch the audience.

The retrospective wallop is powerful; it’s the sort of theatre where comprehension begins at the point where the play ends.

The Globe and Mail
January 9, 1992