By Liz Nicholls, .ca
The opening moments of Mob nail you to your seat, and there’s no getting relaxed after that in the Quebec thriller that is Workshop West’s genuinely disturbing season opener.
A woman (Kristin Johnston), mysteriously traumatized, drives all night and arrives — randomly? inevitably? — at a remote B&B outside the city in the middle of nowhere. The inhabitants she meets might have been unalarming — a comically awkward young man (Graham Mothersill), and his reassuring older auntie (Davina Stewart)— without the Hitchcockian inheritance of Psycho.
What happens after that, moment by moment in Catherine-Anne Toupin’s 2018 hit, for the first time in the West in Heather Inglis’s production, will surprise you, freak you out, set in motion a sense of unease and quease that feels visceral. The secrets of the thriller narrative, expertly constructed by the Quebec actor/playwright/TV and film star, are safe with me (and I didn’t see them coming). Just to say it’s the morning after opening night. And I can’t stop thinking about Mob, with a little involuntary shudder.
Sophie has lost her job. She’s angry and hurt, looking, she tells her hosts, to “take a step back.” That’s what we do, too, step back to reconsider the giant, tilted light-up grid-work screen that dominates Beyata Hackborn’s outstandingly atmospheric, and striking, design. It’s a sort of high-tech quilt of frosted tiles, across which the flickering image of Sophie’s face in close-up plays as Mob begins.
It’s accompanied by a barrage of sound fragments, with lots of “blah blahs” thrown in: “restructuring,” “survival of the business,” “calm the storm,” “nothing I could do,” “no one should get the idea that …” “better if I left,” “think of it as an opportunity.…” Yes, it’s the corporate-speak soundtrack of someone getting fired, by someone trying to smother the responsibility.
There’s nothing about the unlikely connection between the characters that I can tell you (the entire play is a spoiler alert on legs with great lighting). But the performances by a trio of our best actors are all compelling, committed, and responsive to an emotional topography that seems to change at every turn.
As Sophie, who arrives in misery and gets hold of herself, Johnston radiates intelligence and watchfulness, a wary kind of assessing and reassessing, at every moment. It’s not every actor who can convey the sense of thinking, of thought in progress, in quite so compelling a way. Mothersill’s excruciatingly awkward Martin is so hapless, uncomfortable and oddly needy, you wince every time he opens his mouth and blurts something he’ll scramble ineptly to retract. His laughter, often misplaced, has a way of going AWOL or turning uncomfortably shrill. It’s a raw, itchy, vulnerable portrait. And Stewart as his aunt Louise, apparently calm and reserved, the adult of the two, is reassuringly conciliatory.
The visuals are stunning collaboration between Alison Yanota’s lighting and Hackborn’s striking, possibly abstract, design. The question of whether it’s a dream world stays live throughout. The playing area is defined by its frames. Four lighting instruments, two on each side, create the impression that the B&B is a kind of studio. Light plays off the ultra-shiny surfaces — floor, furniture, back screen — to which nothing can stick.
Characters enter and exit through fateful light-up doorways. And the crackle of short circuitry is part of the dramatically ominous soundscape that designer Darrin Hagen has created for this world. It has a persistently menacing industrial thud to it, a kind of aural pulse that never quite explodes altogether or becomes “music.” It’s a very clever participant in Mob’s exploration of language, and the violent uses to which it can be put.
In the world(s) in which we live, Mob is a play you must see. Even the title is disturbing. There are no loners, in the end, no single misogynists, no isolated predators. There is no dipping a toe into the toxic internet sea, and retracting it if you don’t like the temperature. Mob is there to disturb our complacency about the heavy toll exacted by our digital connectivity. In the internet age of anonymous alliances and invisible alter-egos and threats, no one is alone. Is that a consoling thought? It shouldn’t be.
Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre
Written by: Catherine-Anne Toupin
Directed by: Heather Inglis
Starring: Kristin Johnston, Graham Mothersill, Davina Stewart
Where: Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd
Running: through Nov. 12