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Check Your Privilege @ Gateway, Arts Club

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

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Still in lingering awe of his elder brother, though, Jake deploys a convoluted moral calculus to construe Matt’s self-abnegation into an act of passive aggressive heroism: “He’s penalizing himself. Guys like us are being told to get out of the way so that ‘other’ people can have a chance. Matt’s actually doing that! It’s noble!”

Hardly, Matt shrugs. He’s just “trying to be useful.” Jake’s appalled: “So you don’t even have your principles? You’re a loser for no reason?” Drew, for his part, recoils in therapeutic self-empathy: “Can’t you see what it’s doing to us to see you like this?” And even Dad, finally, can’t allow himself to “enable” his firstborn’s self-eclipse any longer.

So Matt’s left utterly alone in the end to wrestle with his unsought White Man’s Burden – a strikingly generous and humane conclusion from a playwright hailed (by New York’s Village Voice) as “the queen of unease.” Oblivious assholery all around, but nobody in the play sets out to be deliberately vicious.

But bridle your empathy. Co-directors Chelsea Haberlin and Fay Nass (guiding lights, respectively, of ITSAZOO and the queer-themed Frank Theatre Company) frame their production with a couple of distancing effects of almost Brechtian scrupulosity to keep us emotionally detached from the characters and focused on the polemic payload.

For one thing, there’s the 22’ x 41’ faux-rococo picture frame surrounding the entire proscenium to bracket the suburban banality of set designer Shizuka Kai’s meticulously realistic stage set. Then, too, a pair of conspicuously non-straight, non-white non-men -- Kim Villagente and Raven John – hover about the stage throughout the show as designated “Persons In Charge.”

Flamboyantly costumed (by designer Laura Fukumoto), they welcome us in with raucously shrill rap songs and introduce themselves with elaborate ethnic lineages and non-binary pronouns. And then, at the start of each of the play’s three scenes, they position the SWM players for the action ahead like department store window dressers or bunraku puppeteers.

So much for the vaunted free agency of the SWM.

Of course, the real puppet master of the show is choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, who’s tutored her titular quartet to make Straight White doofus-dancing look somehow synchronized yet spontaneous, gawky yet weirdly graceful. Friedenberg’s had a busy time of it in February, having just world-premiered City Opera’s latest commission, Berlin 1934, in this year’s PuSh Fest.

But, to my mind, her greatest tour de force for the month has been another dissection of white privilege, Vertigo Theatre’s original production, Cipher, on Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage. Two of the show’s five co-stars, Arash Khakpour and Delia Brett, dance virtually non-stop with hardly a line to utter throughout the entire impressionistic psycho-espionage thriller. Another two, Praneet Akilla and Ellen Close, hardly stop talking throughout the entire two acts in a steady barrage of flirty banter, soulful soliloquies, steamy smooches, poetical quotations and techie (cybernetic, forensic or toxicological) jargon.

And the fifth co-star, Braden Griffiths, splits the difference, silently dancing his way through Act One as a trench-coated, fedora-sporting Spy-versus-Spy model Secret Agent only to re-emerge in Act Two as a logorrheic Columboesque CSIS agent of shrewdly shambling obliquity. Griffiths plays both roles to a tee – and no wonder, as he co-wrote the prizewinning script, along with Close, on commission by Calgary’s Vertigo Theatre.

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