Millennial job seekers retreat to advance in Hart House Theatre’s RETREAT

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Claire Burns

Don’t get in the way of millennials vying for a job – they will knock you down and trample you in their single-minded race to the top.

This cut-throat world of workforce competition is the focus of prolific Canadian playwright Kat Sandler’s play Retreat. Both a critical darling and a hit when it debuted at Storefront Theatre in 2014, it is readying to open at Hart House Theatre on March 1. “It’s a really funny play and super-relevant for millennial, as it deals with entering the uber-competitive job market,” offers indie artist Claire Burns, who is directing this production.

Burns’ staging will be distinct from the original in several ways. For one, the theatre at Hart House is significantly larger than the indie venue where the play premiered, giving Retreat a wider reach. For another, Burns’s interpretation injects queer content because “as a gay woman, I’m always looking to represent my people”. When casting the play, Burns immediately thought of Pearle Harbour for the role of Scoutmaster Candace Matchwick. “The role is funny, brassy and a little bit loopy – and Kat Letwin hit it out of the park in the original production.” Given  the popularity of Rupaul’s Drag Race and Pearle Harbour’s recent “storming of Canadian stages”, Burns felt that Justin Miller as Pearle Harbour playing Candace would add valuable dimensionality to the piece.The casting was an uncanny pairing of character and performer, allowing her to “queer the narrative” while preserving the original essence of the Candace character. “We accept Candace as a woman and make no qualms about the non-heteronormative relationships that spring up with her presence,” observes Burns. Whether serendipity or casting coup, it simply happens that “Pearle and Candace are A LOT alike”.

The bio on Pearleharbour.com, which describes Harbour as a WWII-era “wonder, masculine nasty woman, tragicomedienne”, reinforces Burns’ view. To Harbour, Scoutmaster and Spirit Guide Candace Matchwick is the “ultimate camp counsellor”: “unrelentingly cheerful, full of grit and gumption, but cool enough to share her moonshine. She’s more at home with the creatures of the woods than with the beasts of the concrete jungle…. The kind of person who would safely lead the survivors of a plane crash back to civilization, with as little cannibalism as possible.” Harbour saw the “brilliant and hilarious” Kat Letwin bring Candace to life in the original Storefront production, and proclaims that “the chance to walk in those hiking boots is not something you pass up.”

Retreat likens the corporate job market to a Darwinian-esque survival of the fittest. It examines the travails of four young candidates vying for one position in a dog-eat-dog job world. The characters Paul, Nicole, Jordan and Kira go on a 3-day wilderness retreat to test their mettle and prove who has the brass to land not a job, but an unpaid internship. In an eerie case of art imitating life, the audition process was “pretty cutthroat”, with the roles finally going to four actors of the “emerging variety”. Sebastian Biasucci (Jordan), Tony Tran (Paul), Brittany Clough (Kira) and Terri Pimblett (Nicole) beat out over 180 others who auditioned.

Pearle Harbour as Candace Matchwick; photo by Scott Gorman

The show’s “really talented” design team has had “a blast” building the world that these characters live in because “the show is colourful, campy and a lot of fun.”. At the same time, a large part of Sandler’s success as a writer lies in her eye for social trends and her  knack for finding the emotional pulse of the people she is depicting. Retreat manages the delicate balance of using extreme and comical situations to drive home the point that landing a job takes far more than well-tailored resume.

So how might the millennials in the audience – many in the throes of job-hunting or landing co-op positions or unpaid internships of their own –  respond to Retreat?  Should they see it as a cautionary tale or preparation tool? Harbour intones that they yes, they should worry . . . before unleashing a full-blown mock-hysterical diatribe: “ALL HOPE IS LOST, SOCIETY IS CRUMBLING AROUND US, WE MUST RETREAT BACK TO THE WILDERNESS, AND EMBRACE OUR PRIMAL ANIMAL URGES!”

“Weellll . . . ” counters Burns, “I would say that Retreat [is] relevant because it will hammer home that [they] are not alone. That this problem of the ever-competitive job market is a constant strain and stress on whole cohorts of our population.” Harbour, serious  again, adds “if we’re all competing for the same thing, who’s really benefiting? It’s rarely the ‘winner’, because winning can cost you. Retreat pulls back the focus and considers who’s making the rules of this competition, who’s pitting us against one another, and why are we so eagerly playing into their game without question?”  

What to do? “We ought take a break from sharpening our teeth, and eat the rich instead,” she deadpans. Burns sees the play as an important reflection of the shark-like corporate environment, albeit like a “wacky fun house/extreme mirror”. “Hopefully, no audience members will get any ideas about taking matters into their own hands like the characters do,” she winks.

Finally and happily, directing Retreat at Hart House Theatre has considerable personal meaning for Burns, as both a source of nostalgia and a rung on her career ladder. She has fond memories of volunteering at Hart House as a U of T student and building her CV there as an actor and performer. She is especially grateful for this opportunity to build her director credits as well, and it has been a “real pleasure” to come back and work on the U of T campus with Hart House staff, Marketing and Publicity Coordinator Andrea Wasserman and General Manager Doug Floyd. “The physical theatre space of Hart House is steeped in history. I love the smell of the building and the vibe,” she marvels.

While audiences may be wise to heed Harbour’s final, cheeky caution to “ beware poison berries, wild pigs, and millennial interns”, they should also take Burns’ infectious enthusiasm to heart: “The show is going to be great. Can’t wait for you all to see it!”

Sebastian Biasucci, Terri Pimblett, Pearle Harbour, Brittany Clough, Tony Tran; photo by Scott Gorman

News You Can Use

What: Retreat by Kat Sandler; Set Design by Christine Urquhart; Costume Design by Ming Wong; Lighting Design by Steph Raposo; Sound Design by Bri Proke; Directed by Claire Burns
Performed by Pearle Harbour as Candace Matchwick, Tony Tran as Paul / Wise Gazelle, Terri Pimblett as Nicole / Ladybeetle, Sebastian Biasucci as Jordan / Brave Lion, Brittany Clough as Kira / Otterbox

Who: Audiences 16 years of age and older; Audience Advisory: The show contains coarse language and mature themes

When: On Stage Friday, March 1- Saturday, March 9, 2019; Run Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

  • Postshow Talkbacks: Sat. March 2 and Thurs., March 7
  • Preshow Artist Chat: Sat. March 9, 1 pm

Where: Hart House Theatre, 7 King’s College Circle, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: harthouse.ca

© 2019 Arpita Ghosal Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

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