A Knockout: Cseke’s The Fight or Flight Response Enters The Ring

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Verb Theatre presents The Fight or Flight Response by Col Cseke, March 10-19 at the Joyce Dolittle Theatre. Pictured, L to R: Justin Michael Carriere and Nathan Pronyshyn. Photo Credit: Rob Galbraith.

On its surface, Col Cseke’s The Fight or Flight Response is about two guys trying to escape their unfulfilling lives.

By day, Kevin (Justin Michael Carriere) is an Assistant Manager at Subway; by night he is a mixed martial arts fighter training for his first professional MMA fight. On the verge of turning thirty, Kevin sees the fight as his last first experience ever, a thought that motivates him even more to win and climb the professional ladder.

On the flip side, Kevin’s long-time friend Doug (Nathan Pronyshyn) is struggling to get away from the MMA scene altogether. Doug’s problem is that he has very little experience with anything outside of fighting. Before working full-time at Mohammed’s MMA Gym, the thirty-two year old slung coffee at Tim Hortons. Doug knows he wants to do something else with his life, but he just doesn’t know what that something else looks like. Paralyzed by fear and indecision, Doug hopes for some external force to move him in one direction or another.

This Verb Theatre production is staged inside the Joyce Dolittle Theatre, a small but malleable space. Costume and Set Designer Victoria Krawchuk has transformed the space into a MMA gym, equipment and all. The theatre’s brick walls add to the grittiness of the space, and the drama that unfolds during very real and brutal fight sequences (Fight choreography by Karl Sine with Pronyshyn and Carriere).

As mentioned, Cseke’s play is in some parts about these two friends trying to turn their lives around, but really the play is about the many problems with traditional masculinity, namely the emotional disconnect that young men experience. Traditional masculinity dictates that young men ought to keep their emotions bottled inside, that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. About the nature of fighting, Kevin muses that guys like fighting because it’s the only time when human contact between men is acceptable. Guys can’t touch other guys otherwise, he says, unlike girls who can make contact with other girls whenever. And so, following these lines, young men remove themselves emotionally in two ways, from the self and from others.

So, it’s no surprise that the men in Cseke’s play have such a hard time not only describing what they’re feeling, but then sharing that with someone else. For them, the only thing that makes sense is fighting, knowing that someone wins and someone loses at the end of a match. Support, not competition, it’s a novel idea.

Director Kelly Reay pursues this awkwardness between Kevin and Doug by having both actors never quite engaging each other directly, not until the heated finale anyway. Maybe the best way to describe Reay’s direction is by comparing it to when people walk aimlessly around their homes while on the telephone. The actors play or distract themselves with the various equipment laying around the gym while digging deep into their character’s emotional well. It’s a funny thing at first, but then we realize that these distraught characters would need to distract themselves in order to be so open about their emotions. And the actors are most usually talking to each other from afar, growing that emotional distance even further. Excellent direction by Reay who succeeds in pulling the actors and action together at the end.

Pronyshyn and Carriere display tremendous vulnerability in this raw, engaging production. The actors speak volumes through their movement alone. It’s fascinating just how much non-verbal communication is expressed during the training periods, and other blows exchanged between the two. What’s exciting, too, is the sense of immediacy that the actors draw from their characters’ seemingly hopeless lives. The big life changes, they have to happen now or never. Time is not something people can fight, but only accept.

A riveting piece of work by Cseke, and a knockout production from Verb Theatre.

Verb Theatre’s The Fight or Flight Response by Col Cseke runs March 10 – 19 at the Joyce Dolittle Theatre (Pumphouse Theatres).

For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.verbtheatre.com/season/


Theatre and Biography Meet In Mike, Karen, Karen, Mike

Mike Keir and Karen Johnson-Diamon. Imaged supplied by Verb Theatre.

Mike Keir and Karen Johnson-Diamond. Imaged supplied by Verb Theatre.

Mike Keir has a story to tell. Actually, he has many stories to tell.

A co-production between Verb Theatre and Inside Out Theatre, Mike, Karen, Karen, Mike: A Soap Opera is, at its core, a compelling blend of theatre and biography.

Inside Motel Theatre, Keir is joined by director Col Cseke and Karen Johnson-Diamond (co-artistic director of Dirty Laundry). Cseke sits beside Keir, interviewing him about his past. Meanwhile, Johnson-Diamond waits on the side to improvise scenes with Keir  – a long-time fan of Dirty Laundry.

Keir, who has cerebral palsy, starts his story with an incident that happened between him and a counselor at a camp for youth with disabilities. From this incident, a larger story of abuse, sexuality, and fear unfolds.

Keir’s story, however, is not one that can be told in ordinary linear fashion because, unlike stage dramas, real life events cannot be so easily isolated in time and place. There are many ‘characters’ that need to be introduced; relationships that have to be defined; histories that need to be explained. That is why Keir is adamant on backtracking, so that he can give proper context to the events that follow.

And as Keir’s story grows larger in its scope, so too does the connection between audience and storyteller. We become involved in this story that is, at times, difficult, but nonetheless engrossing. Keir captures our attention with his frankness, along with his sense of humour. And that humour is a reflection of Keir’s belief that telling a story enough times weakens it. In other words, telling these stories is Keir’s way of overcoming the experiences that have had far-reaching effects on his life.

And so, we remember that the stage can mean many different things to many different people. Here, Keir’s stage is one of healing, transformation – moving on. Mike, Karen, Karen, Mike: A Soap Opera is theatre for the soul.

Mike, Karen, Karen, Mike: A Soap Opera runs May 13 – 16 at Motel Theatre.

For information about the show, visit:

The Weight of The World Suffocates in Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs

Presented by Verb Theatre, Duncan MacMillan’s gripping play Lungs stages the story of F (Anna Cummer) and M (Kyle Jespersen), a well-educated couple in their thirties. One day, while in line at Ikea, M puts forward the idea of having a child. From this moment, a turbulent, uninterrupted conversation surrounding the ramifications of bringing a baby into the world – a world already strained for resources – begins and follows into the next several days, months, and years.

Per MacMillan’s explicit stage instructions, there is no set nor are there any props. What there is plenty of though is a lot of talk, and a lot of talk about talking.

Over and over again, F justifies to herself (and M) why the couple should not bring a child into the world. Think of the environment, F says, citing the impact one whole person’s carbon footprint has on the Earth. Then, switching her position, F reasons why the couple are allowed to have a child, citing primarily the fact they are not only are they good people, but they are also very aware.

The whole play reads as a sharp criticism of slacktivism. F and M self-identify as well-informed citizens based off how much they (claim to) read. And that is enough for them to separate themselves from the masses. In other words, because the couple knows better, then they cannot be part of the problem. F and M equate not only knowledge with responsibility, but also as a form of action in itself. Unfortunately, for all their awareness, they fail to participate in any meaningful action to help the world. They only talk about what they have done or plan to do – the latter being subject to whether or not they have a child.

And it is this shallow satisfaction with themselves that sets the couple up for heartbreak when they are hit hard, very hard, with the realization that the world is indifferent to them, no matter how many trees they intend to plant.

In this way, MacMillan reflects back to us our growing complacency in the digital age. For MacMillan, awareness is not enough. Using a hashtag or sharing a video is only a small step in creating change. In this world, which goes on with or without us, what truly matters is action; knowledge put in practice.

With regards to the script, MacMillan offers no escape from what is born out of a simple conversation. He holds nothing back in this emotional roller coaster that punches forward on a track bent in every direction, leaving its audience speechless by the end.

And thankfully, Cummer and Jespersen match the velocity of MacMillan’s fearless script. Cummer is fantastic in drawing out so many emotions from the audience. And there is this one powerful moment, which demands to be seen, where Cummer simply nails it. Never has a theatre gone so quiet. And Jespersen is there with Cummer every step of the way. Rarely do a pair respond to and match so well what the other brings to the table.

Running at Motel Theatre, Verb Theatre’s arresting production of Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs is one not to miss.

Verb Theatre’s production of Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs runs at Motel Theatre (Arts Commons), Feb 5-14, 2015.

For more information on the show and how to purchase tickets,
visit: http://www.verbtheatre.com/season/