By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“What can I get you?”
It’s a world of first names and smiling informality. It’s where people go to escape their lives temporarily, or take an undemanding break from solitude or commitment. Your secrets are safe; so are your silences. What comes with your ice cubes is a sympathetic ear — without advice. Friendly but non-intrusive, non-judgmental, no strings attached beyond the tab.
That’s what bars are for. And that scene is precisely where we find ourselves in Gemini, a clever, uncannily seductive new two-hander play by Louise Casemore. We’re downstairs in the atmospheric catacombs under El Cortez. And we’re facing the bar, quite possibly drink in hand.
It’s tricky, disputed ground that Gemini stakes out, and explores. It plays along unacknowledged frontiers of a bar culture that relies on the illusion of no rules but in the end has some heartbreaking boundaries. It chronicles — in the most convincingly natural terms in Beth Dart’s production — the arc of a casual relationship. And, in the cunning structure of a piece, that like bar culture itself is entirely without exposition, it’s bookended by the same scene we understand in a new way by the end.
The opening scene is a little masterpiece of familiar awkwardness: a poetry reading in a bar (which explains why we’re in rows), the kind where you hope to hell someone will have a question for the talk-back part at the end. Beer and book in hand, the rumpled poet acknowledges the audible hubbub from upstairs. In Vern Thiessen’s performance, he’s a perfectly judged blend of the wry, the self-deprecating, the kind of fake-casual that sees through itself, kind of. smar
The characters are there to be discovered, gradually. Ben, the middle-aged sometime poet and underachieving consultant, is a daytime regular. “You’re like next-level regular, right?”, says Julia the younger but not quite young bartender (Casemore), referring playfully to Ben’s privilege of a weekly tab.
Their offhand teasing banter is captured in an entirely convincing way by the actors: the bright, quick-witted cordiality of Casemore’s Julia and the wry affable shrug of Ben captured, in drink-by-drink expansiveness, by Thiessen,. The award-winning playwright is making a very rare stage appearance, and after Gemini you’ll be asking why so infrequent.
Unobtrusively, sneakily, the ante gets upped in time: where do the claims of commerce end? Maybe all relationships forged in that culture are doomed, in time, to strain against boundaries. Both characters come up against them.
It’s as smartly fashioned as a designer cocktail, the kind that hides the booze and the tab until you feel the kick of both. An exceptional piece of work.