After a season of comedies, the Williams Lake Studio Theatre is preparing to end the 2018/19 season with the hardest hitting of dramas Cherry Docs.
Written by playwright David Gow, Cherry Docs takes a stark and at times harsh look at bigotry and prejudice on both sides of the political spectrum through a tight, intimate character study of two men. One is Mike Downey, a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi skinhead incarcerated for the drunken murder of a South Asian man. The other is Danny Dunkelman, the Jewish public defender assigned to Downey’s case.
The premise alone gives you an idea of the inevitable conflict that follows as a far-right fascist’s point of view clashes with that of a liberal lawyer from an ethnicity that, Downey admits, in his ideal world would be exterminated. Rather than paint Downey as a pure villain, however, the play asks uncomfortable questions about how one becomes capable of kicking a man to death with his steel-toed boots in a drunken rage. Most importantly, however, it reveals that hate is by no means exclusive to a neo-Nazi.
Bringing this story to life on the Studio Theatre’s stage is a small dedicated team guided by the vision of director Merla Monroe. The casting process for the play’s only two roles, Downey and Dunkelman, was a difficult one as she had several good actors to choose from. Originally she chose Shane Tollefson, a veteran actor and director of the season’s first play November, to play the lawyer and Neal Matoga, who also starred as Archer Brown in November, as the skinhead.
However, after work called Matoga away from Williams Lake, she turned to Gabriel Zamorano, whose first time acting with the Theatre had just ended with Table Manners, who willingly jumped right from the comedy into the thick of the drama. The extent to which the two actors have embraced the often hard to read material has really made working on this play with them enjoyable, Monroe said.
“Shane’s a very experienced actor, and he’s so real, in the monologues (it’s just like) he’s talking to a friend, he’s very casual,” Monroe said. “Gabriel, he’s very intense and he works really, really hard (at this) really difficult role he has but he’s embraced it and there are times we joke ‘Oh Gabriel we’re starting to worry about you.’”
The chemistry the two have been developing over the last four months, Monroe said, is really good and lends itself well to the development of the characters. She’s enjoyed attending every rehearsal because of their willingness to try new things and to have fun, despite the heavy content of the play.
Monroe hopes that when people leave the theatre after seeing Cherry Docs, they talk with one another about the play and what they just saw. She encourages prospective audience members to come with a friend rather than on their own to promote this important conversation.
“Contrary (to popular belief) stats Canada just came out a few weeks ago and police reported hate crimes rose 50 per cent in Canada in 2017. (This play) is relevant, it’s not south of the border and we need to realize that and address it,” Monroe said. “I think the storyline (of the play) will make everyone examine their own prejudices and feelings.”
For Tollefson, the greatest challenge about being a part of this play is the fact he’s playing a non-comedic role for the first time in years. A naturally humorous man who makes frequent jokes in the theatre, he said it’s been enjoyable to immerse himself in the role of a serious, righteous but ultimately flawed man.
Tollefson has really enjoyed having Zamorano as his acting partner as well as the stripped down nature of the play.
“It’s just us on stage, there’s no fancy set or other characters, it’s just the two of us on stage and it’s a nice change of pace,” Tollefson said. “It’s just two actors on a script that’s really meaty.”
To make the script, which purely consists of monologues and dialogue shared between the two characters, consumable Tollefson said they “carved the script up” and tackled each scene one by one. They used the time to examine the characters and what actions would be most powerful on stage to accompany the lines.
The mild-mannered Zamorano, meanwhile, has the rather intense job of bringing a very angry and troubled person to life in the role of Mike Downey. A kind and friendly actor, on stage Zamorano convincingly transforms both physically and verbally into a menacing presence.
Going deeper into what motivates his character helped Zamorano better understand the role, as did taking the play “chunk by chunk” and not trying to do “everything at once.” Talking about how the interactions and language on stage makes people feel, especially when it comes to some of his lines, was also and remains important for the cast and crew.
“It’s great a story, there’s a great moral thread to it,” Zamorano said. “The play takes place over a quite a long period of time (in story) so you get to see a different side to each character as the play goes on, which is really cool and special.”
Both Zamorano and Tollefson agree the play is a good way to examine both radical ideology and how we deal and work with someone embedded within an ideology of hatred. They hope that the community Williams Lake gives the play a chance and leaves with food for thought.
Cherry Docs opens May 1 and runs Wednesday to Saturday until May 18, with only one show on May 8 for the second week, with tickets priced at $15 for Wednesday and Thursday of the first week and $20 for the rest of the run. They’re on sale now at the Williams Lake Studio Theatre website or at The Open Book and Kit and Kaboodle.