By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
You won’t have seen anything quite like All The Small Animals I Have Eaten, the play that’s now running in the Shadow Theatre season. And because it’s by Karen Hines, a brilliant original of a satirist, you shouldn’t miss it.
It’s funny, it’s provocative, it’s downright eerie in the jagged angles and weird psychic lighting of its sharp-edged satire.
You could call it a hallucination of sorts in the mind (the “psycho-shtetl” as she puts it) of our sleep-deprived grad student server at La Ferme, a swanky concept bistro attached to a sustainable all-woman condominium with its own actual farm. And, as you’ll find out in Alexandra Dawkins’ lively production, constantly in motion, it’s a swirling vision that’s fed (so to speak) by locally-sourced fragments.
Frankie (Dayna Lea Hoffman) is onstage with a quartet of mobile alter-egos that haunt her (“my exploded self”). And they populate the hilarious female conversations of the urban professionals Frankie overhears at her tables talking in a stream of non-sequiturs about banking, real estate, insurance while she’s taking the drinks orders. “I’m thinking of becoming a pantheist….”
The chorus provides a companion in Frankie’s own post-shift conversations with a fellow server, talking about everything from golden retrievers to lawyers’ brains to unattainable real estate prices. They’re in charge of the stage directions that are also the captions of the paper Frankie is struggling to finish for her Fifth Wave Feminist Film Theory and Criticism 555 class, a graphic novel in the form of an origami fortune teller. You remember those, from grade school recess? The “pussy posse” inhabit the ghosts of dead feminist writers, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, Frida Kahlo and others, too.
The Bechdel test shadows the play and its all-female cast — and Frankie as “a star student of the feminist forum.” You remember the test? A litmus to determine gender bias in film and theatre by asking whether at least two women, named, talk to each other for at least a minute about something other than men. All The Little Animals I Have Eaten is a pass with flying colours, to say the least. But with its keen capture of consumerist cadences (something it shares with Hines’ Pochsy plays), its appetite for absurdity, its scathing assessment of market-driven feminism, Hines’s dark and witty comedy wonders ‘what then?’.
Riding the post-Bechdelian fifth wave (“the fourth was not as funny”), saddled with crushing student loans and dreams she increasingly fears are dead ends, Frankie wonders how on earth to participate meaningfully in life’s great adventure. And in a fine comic performance, Hoffman captures the addled, fracturing, traumatically distracted quality of a young woman who’s a beleaguered server to the feminist success story. A funny Virginia Woolf throwaway is attached to this: A Room of One’s Own, updated to A Condo of One’s Own. You have the feeling Frankie suspects that everything might be a digression to the main event of the closed door. Ah, and she really really wants that not to be true.
What gives the play its original queasy brilliance is the dizzying optic of the very particular, down to the molecular, located in a vast universe with a receding horizon. In an amusingly off-centre scene between an insurance adjustor and her client in the aftermath of an accident with an elk, the latter says “I can hear the fascia in your fingers…. I can hear the fluid in your brain when you tilt your head like that….” You think of Pochsy, connected to her IV pole, envisioning sickness as a squid where her heart should be, with tentacles that shoot algae into her veins.
It’s not species-specific, this Hines vision of mussels squirming out of the bowl, or legs waving from the crayfish bisque, or lambs about to head for the plate discussing being and nothingness. If I hadn’t sworn off any use of the word “surreal” till the end of the calendar year, I’d be using it now.
The chorus of four — Elena Porter, Sophie May Healey, Coralie Cairns, Noori Gill — in pink-hued workers’ jumpsuits (designer: Leona Brausen) deliver boldly comic performances, in a variety of permutations and incarnations, human and animal. They’re inventive (and Gill makes an outstanding Virginia Woolf), but I do wonder, though, if Dawkins’ production doesn’t occasionally force its comedic hand in theatrical playfulness, and delivery that’s sometimes leans into comical delivery, miming props, or synchronized choral movement at the expense of deadpan.
Funny, yes, but sometimes the busy-ness is counter-productive to the hilarity of the scenes in which professional types are overheard blithely revealing themselves as smug capitalists, amoral competitors, shrewd investors, faux-self-critical about their part in the screwed-up zeitgeist. “Must I take some blame for the fading global image of generosity and openness, blah blah blah?”
Ami Farrow’s lighting and Dave Clarke’s soundscore are more unerring, in their mix of mystery and progressive age-y calming motifs.
Hines’ sense of humour seems to work in juxtapositions, lists (a realtor-type description of a condo or Frankie’s list of the qualities, including orthodontics, that got her the gig), and anti-climax. And the playwright doesn’t eschew goofball throwaways either. “What is chickweed? A weed chicks eat.” It’s fun and it’s provoking to experience a satire that’s lit in such an unusual way, with a wicked capture of the modern woman soundtrack, doubts about the aspirational quest for “home,” and a skeptical vision underpinned by a serious feminist humour.
It’s all very well, says All The Little Animals I Have Eaten, to grasp the urban professional mantra assumed by smart, progressive women, of identifying your goal, then pursuing it like a tiger sniffing carpaccio, as the play and Frankie recognize. But then there’s the big question of the goal itself, shrouded in questions and mystery, refusing to align itself in a linear way, wriggling out of grasp. What to want? What to wish for? Shouldn’t it have something to do with the world, a better future for humanity?
That’s something to put on your fork.
All The Little Animals I Have Eaten
Written by: Karen Hines
Directed by: Alexandra Dawkins
Starring: Dayna Lea Hoffman, Coralie Cairns, Noori Gill, Elena Porter, Sophie May Healey
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through April 2
Tickets: shadowtheatre.org, 780-434-5564