BWW Review: See Toronto up close in THE JUNGLE at Tarragon Theatre
THE JUNGLE is a boldly political new play, argumentative and direct and a bit radical. It is also a touchingly honest drama, brimming with humor and pathos. And it is also another category: a Toronto play, a play that is both of and for our beautiful, challenging city.
Jack (Matthew Gin) drives his father's cab. Veronyka (Shannon Currie) works under the table at a sleazy bar, sending every penny she can save back home to Moldova. They are introduced by fate but drawn together by solidary; Jack respects Veronyka's work ethic and gives her discount fares to and from work. It's not long before they kiss, and spend the night together, and begin a quintessentially Toronto romance, a multi-racial, multi-lingual relationship fueled by love but limited by circumstance.
The circumstance is money: Jack and Veronyka have to support themselves and their parents. Having never completed post-secondary education - having never had the chance to - their options are restricted to factory work, waiting tables, and driving for Uber. Although they are bright, ambitious, and kind, most of the world seems closed to them. They do little but work and sleep; having kids, or taking a vacation, or going back to school are off the table.
Anthony MacMahon and Thomas McKechnie's rich script paints a beautiful but provocative portrait of Toronto and its outer boroughs, not as a city of lights and culture but as a constant grind, a vast sea of apartment buildings occupied by faithful, hard-working people trying to carve out a better life for themselves. Although some make it, just as many are held back by a lack of options, and a lack of empathy from lawmakers and the wealthy people who support them.
Interspersed throughout the play are a handful of mini-lectures on Marxist economic theory, delivered by Currie and Gin out of character. Using Veronyka and Jack as a case study, they explain how, in Marx's view, capitalism pushes workers to compete with each other and accept lower and lower wages. As Currie and Gin write notes and draw diagrams across the set in bright red marker, they push the audience out of their comfort zone: this isn't just a story, it's reality. This is our city, and this is how the people who bake our bread and drive our taxis live.
Director Guillermo Verdecchia employs many of the dramatic techniques he developed in the 1990s in groundbreaking shows like Fronteras Americanas and The Noam Chomsky Lectures. Never allowing the audience to get too comfortable, he balances tender emotion with blunt political statement. Just as it was then, Verdecchia's method is thrilling, but largely ineffectual. Although I have always admired his ability to find drama in polemic, I don't think anyone will leave Tarragon Theatre this month with a different impression of capitalism. The arguments presented in THE JUNGLE are simplistic, and obviously so. There are at least a dozen contemporary scholars whose work explains the challenges faced by the working class more persuasively than Marx, who, like Freud, is better admired for his intelligence than cited for his conclusions.
Nonetheless, THE JUNGLE is an exciting show. I was excited to see such talent in young actors like Currie and Gin, who breathe life not only into Veronyka and Jack, but also the people whose lives they touch. I was excited to witness a critique of capitalism in one of Canada's most established theatres, proof that Tarragon hasn't gotten too safe. And I was excited to see Toronto, really see Toronto, on stage. There is no one viewpoint from which you can see the entirety of this city, not from Toronto Island, or the top of the CN Tower. The closest I think you can get is in a play like THE JUNGLE.
TARRAGON THEATRE's THE JUNGLE runs through NOVEMBER 3 at the TARRAGON THEATRE EXTRASPACE, 30 Bridgman Ave, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit tarragontheatre.com
Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann