If everything is funny, nothing is funny and Cherry Docs, the final play in the Williams Lake Studio Theatre’s 2018-2019 line up, is anything but funny.
Cherry Docs tells a powerful tale of racism, hatred, redemption and hope played between only two actors on stage for the entire performance. Such small plays can be a challenge but the cast and crew of Cherry Docs have more than met it.
Danny Dunkleman, a public defender and devout Jew, is a content, but ambitious lawyer living in Toronto with his wife happily until a new case comes across his desk. He’s asked to defend the troubled young Mike Downey, an open neo-Nazi and member of the skinhead movement, on trial for the drunken beating that led to the death of a South Asian man.
From there Danny must decide how he can defend a man who openly wishes to exterminate him, while Mike must rely on someone he views as evil if he has any chance of a normal life. Sparks fly as the two confront their prejudices and hatred for the other all while preparing for a legal battle…
Thematically, there’s a lot to dig into as you view the Studio Theatre’s depiction of Cherry Docs. Director Merla Monroe wanted to make people think and keep them at the edge of their seats and has done so through her choice of actors, intense cello music and stripped down elements. In essence, she locks you into the interview room with these two intense men and asks you to watch them confront their differences.
None of this would have worked, however, without the powerhouse performances of Shane Tollefson and Gabriel Zamorano, as Danny and Mike respectively. The two share a tangible connection on stage and have great chemistry together, allowing the few jokes in the play to land in a real, believable way.
Tollefson, the director of November, had admitted in a previous interview that he primarily is a comedic actor by trade and this was his first serious role in years. He took this comedic talent and turned into a warm and friendly persona, acting like he’s simply talking to a friend on a sunny porch in his monologues.
As Danny, he’s an outwardly calm steady presence throughout the majority of the play with his dry delivery often inciting laughter in an otherwise tense drama. When called upon, however, he was also able to invoke emotions of sadness and nostalgia, particularly when remembering his father after a difficult day.
By contrast, Zamorano is a commanding, intense presence from the moment he first opens his mouth on stage. Cherry Docs marks only his second play with the Theatre, the first being the comedy Table Manners earlier this year. There is nothing funny however with his captivating, disturbing and passionate portrayal of a neo-Nazi.
While Tollefson quietly projects, Zamorano spends much of the play yelling, screaming and speaking roughly, as befits a young disillusioned man. The most effective tool he uses, however, is his eyes, which glance sporadically into the audience with a sharp zealot’s gaze. His lines are some of the vilest, yet Zamorano is able to state them as if he truly believes every word.
Beneath this villainous front, however, exists a man who, as the play progresses, is slowly revealed to be conflicted, frustrated and in his own way, marginalized. It’s a testament to Zamorano’s abilities to be able to show these hidden depths while ranting and flailing madly.
Both characters by the end of the play are different men and while the actors did a good job of portraying this, narratively it felt somewhat lacking. An extra scene or two would have been welcome, as once things come to a head the play wraps up shortly after, almost too conveniently.
The message, however, of hope and redemption of even the furthest gone is a solid one, as is the acknowledgement of Canada’s own far-right elements. As Zamorano’s character observes, ignoring this problem will not make it go away and dealing with it will take time, hope and compassion.
Technically, everything was designed to back these two actors up and convey the themes of the scenes. Cathie Hamm expertly manned the lights, providing a warm almost golden glow for Tollefson’s monologues and a stark white prison light for Zamorano’s. No cues were missed and the lights were brought up and down in timely manner.
Alix Leary on sound also hit all her cues, providing some thematic music to ease scene changes like 2Cello’s cover of Thunderstruck.
The set, meanwhile, is simple but effective at combining Mike’s jail cell with Danny’s living room and the interrogation room they both spend the majority of the time sharing. Jamie Regier, Carl Johnson and Andrew Tyrrell did a great job designing and constructing it in a manner that looks to be easy to move for the upcoming festival performances.
Overall, if you’re looking for a drama that pulls no punches and are comfortable with mature language, Cherry Docs may just be the palette cleanser you need after a season of comedies. It sets out to incite conversation about important issues in our society and it succeeds at that.
Tickets are on sale now or at the Open Book for the rest of its run on May 8 and May 15 to 18, with doors opening at 7 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. start. The play will also be performed on May 11 in Kersley as part of the Central Interior Zone Festival for Theatre BC.