A zany battle of words and wits between two alpha opponents takes the stage in Toronto
Daniel MacIvor‘s play Never Swim Alone opened on Friday at The Commons Theatre. It’s produced by the two year old Don’t Look Down Theatre Company and it’s the first play they’ve produced that they didn’t write. It was a big night for them. They did a fine job.
The play is a 75-minute stylized 13 round match between two alpha males, Bill (Ryan James) and Frank (Cedric Martin) who were childhood best friends, to see who is “the first man”. The Referee (Tyshia Drake) oversees the contest and determines the winner of each round.
Timing is crucial in this piece. In parts of it the two men speak in unison and repeat the dialogue a number of times. There are parts where they both speak at the same time but say different things and have to stop together. Director Daniel Entz has done a great job keeping the action tight. He’s also made good use of the stage, keeping the characters moving so that they hold the audience’s attention.
At first the two men seem remarkably similar, both dressed in grey suits with white shirts and silk ties and carrying briefcases, and the contests are innocuous. The first one is called Stature and the Referee judges who is tallest. One of my favourites was the third one, Who Falls Dead Best. There was some great falling dead. It all seems like a silly game.
Things start to get darker in the fourth and fifth rounds, Friendly Advice Part 1 and Part 2. I could start to see a difference between the two men.
At about this point Drake temporarily steps out of her role as Referee and becomes the young girl at the lake and starts telling the story of what happened one summer day when they were all young. She was excellent as someone who was narrating their own story, detached and unemotional.
This is a tricky play because even as the rounds get nastier and turn into verbal attacks the dialogue is still quite stylized with some repetition and lots of clichés. I enjoyed watching both men handle that well as their characters developed.
Martin’s Frank kept getting more competitive, his anger started to show, his comments were nastier, but all the time his voice was controlled and he kept smiling. He was determined to be “the first man”.
James’ Bill was slower burning. He took longer to realize that the game had changed and when he did he wasn’t as controlled as Frank.
The 11th round starts with a nifty clapping game and ends with Frank trying to kill Bill in a really terrific fight scene. Martin’s Frank is so scarily calm and so terrifyingly violent, it was a wild contrast.
At the end of the 13th round we don’t know whether Frank or Bill is “the first man”. We do know about the summer tragedy that has kept them bound together over the years. It’s a strangely satisfying play. I love Daniel MacIvor.
There isn’t much in the way of set or props in this production. There’s a lifeguard chair for The Referee. It’s at the back of the stage, in the middle, and anchors the action. I really liked the use of black gloves as guns. Very creative.
I really enjoyed Never Swim Alone. It was well acted and well directed and it’s an interesting play. Worth seeing. I also like the 7:30 curtain for a 75 minute piece. It gives you lots of time afterwards.