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White Biting Dog

Mike Ross & Fiona Reid. Photo by Cylla von TiedemannWhite Biting Dog by Judith Thompson
Directed by Nancy Palk
Soulpepper Theatre Company
Michael Young Theatre,
Young Centre for Performing Arts
August 18 to Oct 1st , 2011

Toronto, ON:  Two years  ago I became a Judith Thompson fan when I saw Palace of The End  performed in Vancouver by Alexa Devine, Russell Roberts and Laara Sadiq. I called it "a stunning theatrical experience" and the three monologues still rank in my mind as among the most compelling dramatic writing I have experienced.

White Biting Dog was written much earlier; it won the 1984 Governor-General's Award for Drama. Having also appreciated other earlier Thompson plays, The Crackwalker, and Lion in the Streets, I was eagerly anticipating this show.

Mike Ross & Michaela Washburn. Photo by Cylla von TiedemannThe premise sounds intriguing. A young man's suicidal leap is stopped by a small white, talking dog, who convinces him that if he saves his father from dying by getting his mother to return home, his own mental anguish will be relieved.

On leaving the bridge, the young man, Cape (Mike Ross), encounters Pony (Michaela Washburn), the owner of the dog. At the home of his ailing father, Glidden, (Joseph Ziegler), Cape's mother, Lomia (Fiona Reid) and her boytoy, Pascal (Gregory Prest), move in temporarily  because their place has been torched by a meth addict. Cape grabs the chance to manipulate Pascal and Lomia and get his mother to move back home

Richard Feren's soundscape punctuated intense moments of the play with thundering sounds of traffic rolling over bridges and through the streets, while a constant low level rumble highlighted the urban setting  within which these people live. Christina Poddubiuk's set of metal towers with a platform that doubled as a bridge and a passageway of Glidden's  home, worked well to evoke these different settings as did Louise Guinand's lighting.

I saw White Biting Dog in a preview performance, two nights before opening but all five members of the ensemble delivered strong performances. Reid and Ross were chilling as the self-obsessed mother and her sociopathic son who feel no emotion for others even during a brief incestuous moment. Lomia's fate, a sort of reverse of Nora in A Doll's House, seemed to be fitting retribution for her initial desertion of her husband. 

Prest's transformation from his husky voiced Pascal persona with the fantastic hairstyle to acceptance of his true identity touched me but  on the other hand I couldn't decide whether I fell sympathy for Glidden's impending death or a cynical amusement at his manipulative way of controlling his family.

Despite the high technical values and the strong acting, I did not like the play itself. With the possible exception of Pony when she was in limbo talking to her father - none of the characters were remotely sympathetic and I really didn't care at all what happened to them.

It  is a bitterly dark play with an underlying message that the world is awful and as Glidden suggests, to survive it you should expect nightmares so that a mere bad dream won't seem so bad. Not a world view that I espouse, nor something that I enjoyed watching.

For tickets to this or other Soulpepper shows call ( 416) 866-8666 Tues to Sat 1 – 8 pm or book online