Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.
For a limited time, the 1990’s are back, thanks to community theatre group East Side Players.
More specifically, a unique aspect of the 1990’s is back, in the form of Canadian play The Wild Guys by Canadian Andrew Wreggitt and Rebecca Shaw, which is running at Todmorden Mills until November 9.
The play is set in the 1990’s – and to prove it, it has a 70’s-90’s soundtrack, copious in-text allusions to 90’s events and songs, and a distinctly throwback vibe. But in her Director’s Notes, Director Meg Gibson draws a straight line from the play to our world of 2019. The Wild Guys explores author Robert Bly’s critique of “toxic masculinity”, which encompasses many of the ills being forcefully countered today by feminism, gender fluidity and the #metoo movement, among others. In the 1990’s, Bly’s Men’s Movement sought to rectify “the absence of the father” through retreats into the wilderness, where men could shed their toxicity and “explore their emotional selves, to connect with nature, and to find their male authority.”
This feels like rich terrain to revisit, and the four leads embrace their 1990’s archetypes with enthusiasm. Mark Boyko’s Stewart is the overconfident former frat boy who joins the retreat with a self-serving ulterior motive and a knapsack full of beer. Rod Cook’s Andy is the earnest Bly disciple, deconstructing for his fellows (and for us) the movement’s tenets and the implications of their actions in the woods. Rob Candy’s Randall is both a member of Andy’s men’s group and a booming urban wiseass with an imposing physical presence. And Liam Doherty’s Robin is the counterpoint to them all: a sincere self-explorer from outside the friend group, who comes garbed in eco-friendly hippy garb and unself-conscious vulnerability.
After a telephone set-up gives us some insight into each, these four mount the stage and begin a wilderness trek to their retreat. Some elements of the simple set are charming: I enjoyed the way the men fish off the front of the stage, the warm glow of the on-screen fire they huddle around, and the nocturnal visitor who challenges them from stage left and right. I found more challenging the partial lighting during scene changes, where the actors can be seen moving their sleeping bags around, or lifting props onto and off of the stage, before climbing back into their sleeping bags. In a play whose setting is treated so . . . well, naturalistically . . . these moments jolted me out of the woods. I needed to get back in.
Of course, things go wrong during the retreat, and conflict ensues. Tonally, the play moves back and forth from pleasant “urban guys in the outdoors” comedy, to direct satire of the Men’s Movement, to more earnest moments that locate something of real value beneath the movement. Yet in the short span of the play, all four men complete defined and different character arcs, and – amidst the moments of mockery – a surprising emotional core rings true. I will confess the ending caught me by surprise. The story felt a bit unfinished, but upon reflection, I think this is how The Wild Guys saws off its balance between satire and character comedy.
By the way, Todmorden Mills, which I had never before visited, is a spectacular venue that greatly enriches the experience of seeing this play. The renovated Papermill Theatre is a pristine facility blessed by engrossing art exhibits which are well worth perusing before or after the show, or at intermission. And making the trek to this theatre by winding through the Don Valley’s autumn colours is akin to the journey into nature that these four men undertake. The physical setting perfectly conjures the play’s intersection of hyper-urban masculinity and primal nature. You can literally hear cars buzzing by at moments during the performance . . . which in retrospect, greatly enriches the smile-inducing final scene.
Though it’s likely a play you’re not familiar with, East Side Players’ The Wild Guys rewards the journey back to the 1990s . . . and into the wilds of the Don Valley.
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What: The Wild Guys by Andrew Wreggitt and Rebecca Shaw | Directed by Meg Gibson | Presented by East Side Players
Performed by Mark Boyko (Stewart), Rod Cook (Andy), Rob Candy (Randall), Liam Doherty (Robin)
When: On stage until November 9, 2019; running time: 90 minutes (one intermission)
Where: Papermill Playhouse in Todmorden Mills, 67 Pottery Road, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: http://www.eastsideplayers.ca/
© Scott Sneddon, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019