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Check Your Privilege @ Gateway, Arts Club

Intersectionalites: cyber-thriller Cipher and tragi-farce Straight White Men

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Over 40 years, Vertigo has made a name for itself specializing in mysteries of the British drawing-room or American Noir “Whodunit” genres. But with this production, the company breaks new ground for “a bold step into the future,” according to Craig Hall, Vertigo’s artistic helmsman, who directed Cipher. To wit: we’re left at the end without knowing for sure Whodunnit, nor even quite what nefarious “It” the mysterious culprit done dunn.

For Cipher is hardly your prototypical theatrical thriller puzzle piece. Rather more of a mood piece, ratcheted up to a pitch of sustained, angsty tension by the seamless coordination of its technical team. Narda McCarroll’s set, an array of swivel-mounted translucent panels, serves as screens for Jamie Nesbitt’s panoply of projection images – now a forest, then a slummy back alley, then a brooding seascape or an intimate bistro.

This allows for endless fluidity of action, with the production paced according to sound designer Torquil Campbell’s propulsive score and Friedenberg’s choreography, rather than mere mundane changes of locale. Yet when the story line calls for dramatic punctuation, lighting designer Parjad Sharifi stands ready with front-lit clinches or back-lit shadows against the translucent screens. Now and again, the pivoting panels even allow us to view both sides of a door or a wall at once.

All this abstract staging comes at the cost of some narrative ambiguity, which may be precisely the point of a post-modern mood piece like Cipher. Hard to come to terms, though, with an open-ended enigma, as the play’s two protagonists learn to their sorrow. Close’s character – ambitious, up-and-coming forensic toxicology professor Grace Goddard – challenges her seminar students with the long-unsolved “cold case” of an unidentified body found poisoned to death on a beach in Victoria some 63 years ago.

She sketches in some intriguing details: the victim’s frantic peregrinations prior to his demise, the torn-out end piece of a poetry book found sewn into a seam of his well-tailored suit, the later discovery of the rest of the book with a mysterious cipher penciled into its margins, his desperate clawing – all in vain – at the unopened beachside doorway of a reclusive local nursing trainee.

As she spins her tale, it’s all enacted in choreographic mime by Khakpour as the victim and Brett as the nurse, shadowed by Griffiths as a skulking Secret Agent. But – Lesson One in forensics – forget all those gaudy narrative distractions, the professor admonishes her students, and just home in on the cold, hard, chemical facts of toxicology to hypothesize a cold case solution for your extra-credit problem set. Class dismissed.

But, lurking in the back of the classroom, a handsome half-Pakistani Hapa (Akilla) 10 years the professor’s junior turns out to be not so readily dismissible. He comes up after the lecture to query her about the beachside body’s lurid trappings. The two of them wind up sharing a drink. And then a bed. And then a DIY illicit web-crawling “botnet” search engine that clandestinely siphons off the processing power of a massive network of unwitting computer users to crack the cold case cipher.

He has his personal, familial reasons for pursuing this quest. She’s driven by professorial publish-or-perish ambition at first, with perhaps a dash of September-May erotic intoxication later on. Between them, they cook up a whole gamut of theories about the cold case backstory – some sinister, some romantic, some just plain cockamamie, all of which the dancers pantomime.

By Act Two, though, the botnet has attracted the notice of Griffiths’ shambolic CSIS sleuth, who’s mainly fixated on Akilla’s Islamic affiliation. From the outset, the play’s been built around a pair of interlocking triangles: the cold case cadaver, beachside nurse and Secret Agent, on the one hand, versus the professor, the Hapa and the G-man. But now we sense the two triads starting to converge towards tragic denouements.

And in each story line, one of the protagonists may wind up broken-hearted but the other is doomed to utter personal annihilation. Guess which one buys it in the end; it’s a matter of privilege.












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