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Pornography at Theatre Inconnu (North American premiere)

They say pornography is like art: you know it when you see it.

Maybe that’s true when you’re expecting to see something familiar. But as with art, the real thing can pull the rug of expectations out from under you. In Simon Stephens’s play Pornography, which has its North American premiere at Theatre Inconnu, Victoria audiences get to see the real thing.

No, it’s not what you expect. There’s no nudity. The sex consists of a bit of smooching: kisses, some close dancing, nothing more.

The language, on the other hand, is X-rated.

Not because it’s especially salacious, but because it’s mordant. When, in the penultimate scene (Nr. 2, counting down from Nr. 7 to Nr. 1), Pippa Catling’s nearly-83-year-old character says that aspects of modern life make her so angry she’d like to bite out the throats from other people’s domestic pets, “mordant” takes on a whole new dimension. Each word is carefully chosen to penetrate, if not your bodily orifices, your mental landscape.

This is dialog that’s perfect, and it’s perfectly played by the cast assembled under Graham McDonald’s direction.

So what happens in Pornography? The play has seven parts (or chapters), which count down in reverse order. The setting is London in July 2005, in the brief period between the announcement that London was awarded the Olympics and the July 7 bombings. Stephens has said he feels “very strongly that the objectification needed to commit an act of terrorism, and kill 52 strangers, is far more pervasive than people were saying.” And so, each of the vignettes of Londoners going about their lives highlights the objectification we’ve all learned, more or less, to take in stride.

Theatre Inconnu’s production features eight actors who morph into multiple roles depending on the story. We start with Naomi Simpson playing a new mother increasingly aware of her own alienation from her job and her husband; we meet Julian Cervello’s character: bi-cultural, but completely unmoored, fear- and hate-filled but seeking safe harbour in a crush (spoiler: it doesn’t end well); James McDougall and Alex Plouffe play brothers who fall into physical love but can’t handle the emotional intimacy: they entomb their feelings as quickly as they erupt; Michael Shewchuk plays one of “the British boys” who goes off from his tidy suburban home to plant a bomb; Jason Stevens and Marina Lagacé play a Lolita-esque game that frustrates both parties; and Pippa Catling shows the scary side of seniors who are not what they appear to be.

Catling’s part was, I thought, most emblematic of the objectification Stephens mentioned. Her character begs some food, but instead of finding compassion, she finds ridicule. She’s even objectified by another character in the scene who takes a photo of her with his cell phone, presumably to post to some social media site as a “look at this daft cow” moment. Pornographic, indeed.

The excellent staging (including props, sound, and lighting effects) would make George Orwell proud: numerous television sets serve to rivet the characters or otherwise bathe them with info-babble and eery light.

The overall effectiveness of this production hinges on how the actors support each vignette. Often, they scrunch right up to the actors playing the main part, like children attending to a storyteller. As they listen, their faces mirror the emotions the audience is likely feeling, which made me self-conscious of my own voyeuristic role in watching each chapter. In a piece that’s as verbally rigorous as this one, that strategy gave the play a powerful emotional depth. It made me, as a viewer, feel quite exposed.

Pornography, script by Simon Stephens.

Directed by Graham McDonald; Stage Manager is Jess Amy Shead.

Lighting Design by Bryan Kenney.

Prop and Set Design by Tom Mairs.

Sound Design by Jay Mitchell.

Costume Design by April Parchoma.

Pornography continues at Theatre Inconnu through May 14.

Call 250-590-6291 for details and exact dates and times (or check MetroCascade’s events page).

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