Cascadia Project Showcases Delightful New Plays on Granville Island

Wayne Gretzky Never Takes it Black

The 2018 Cascadia Project is a festival that showcases new works from local Vancouver artists. Held over two weeks at Studio 1398 on Granville Island, this festival has an intimate, creative appeal. These plays aren’t polished old chestnuts, but they are vivid, and often charming.

This reviewer caught the double-feature “White Night” which included two works, Wayne Gretzky Never Takes it Black and The Hanging Judge.

Directed by Madelaine Walker and written by Issie Patterson, Wayne Gretzky Never Takes it Black is the story of two baristas in Sherbrooke, Quebec, who are faced with the prospect of their café, Chez Sophie, being sold and—gasp!—turned into a Starbucks.

For Rowan (Kyle John Brogan), this is truly horrifying. Rowan is your classic sweater-wearing hipster who studied some vague liberal arts thing before donning a barista’s apron. Kyle John Brogan does a good job of making the character feel both likable and a bit dippy. Rowan seems to be suffering from a bit of arrested development, having lived for years in Sherbrooke without learning French. He keeps a coffee journal, passed down to him from the owner’s deceased wife, Sophie (Anaïs Collin), and only drinks his coffee black.

His co-worker, Carmen (Elana Malbrito) is far less idealistic; this is a job first and foremost. The playwright also draws our attention to the privilege gap between the baristas. While Rowan has more of his identity tied up in the café, Carmen needs the job more; she can’t simply ask her parents for money. She might even look for a job at Starbucks, she says, much to Rowan’s chagrin.  After all, Starbucks offers benefits, like dental. All of this feels authentically bleak.

The title of the play comes from “a Wayne Gretzky”, which is when you order a coffee from Tim Horton’s with nine creams and nine sugars. Despite the protagonists’ preference for black coffee, the audience will find this play plenty sweet. Indeed, with higher production value, Wayne Gretzky Never Takes it Black would be right at home on the CBC. It deals with topics such as bilingualism and community with some good banter.

This isn’t really a story about a town coming together to save a beloved institution. Instead, the baristas find an ally in Anders (Haris Amiri), an idealistic graduate student from Norway. Anders proposes some quintessentially millennial remedies for saving the café: Internet crowdfunding and, hopefully, the help of an Indie celebrity (Gilles Nduwimana). If soulless corporations are putting the boot to community, then maybe we can put our hopes in media—digital and independent—to save us.

The three also uncover tapes that tell the story of the café owner (Nathan Smith) and his deceased wife Sophie. This serves as a nice compliment to the main plotline. Anaïs Collin as Sophie feels, to quote Rowan, “like the awesome aunt I never had.”

Coffee shops are an interesting space, somewhere between work and home. While they feel public, they are, of course, businesses. The Chez Sophie is a great means to explore what it is like to be in between French and English, idealism and cynicism, and in the limbo of the mid-to-late 20’s.

The Hanging Judge

The Hanging Judge is a very different beast. The playwright, Andrey Summers, describes it best: “In a midnight cemetery outside Napoleonic London, two trolls hold a mock trial to decide the fate of a Chinese expatriate, presided over by the hanged corpse of a racist judge. It’s a comedy.”

Audiences won’t be laughing initially, however, as the hanged judge (David Quast) begins the play with a horrible racist tirade. He groans, he swears, the weight of his crimes “stones in the belly”. Thankfully, he’s soon interrupted by Chantecler, a prancing, dandified troll (played hilariously by Nathanael Vass).

Chantecler is a troll who left a life of knuckle-dragging for the lights of Paris. Like many who come back from a trip to France, he returns home totally changed and also a little insane. He’s soon joined by Blemish (Vinnie Riel), a blokey troll, who enters dragging Bill (Mike Li), bound for the slaughter.

“Chinaman!” shrieks the judge.

“What’s a Chinaman?” asks Blemish.

“I don’t know—is this one?” says Chantecler, “I can never tell humans apart.”

While Blemish wants to eat Bill right away, Chantecler disagrees, proposing instead that they argue the matter before the judge. So begins a trial that has all the delightful madness of Lewis Carroll’s court of the Queen of Hearts: “‘Sentence first — verdict afterwards.”

It’s a nutty premise, succeeding in large part through the delightful performances of Nathanael Vass and Vinnie Riel and Summers’ snappy dialogue.

David Quast as the hanged judge is fantastically horrible. When addressed by the trolls, he bemoans the futility of life, describes the stone weight of death, and calls on God or the devil for deliverance. This heavy gloom only makes the Mad Hatter-banter of Chantecler and Blemish more delightful. We look on with relish as the trolls make a mockery of the court.

In many ways the driving force of the play, Chantecler wants to be more than a ravenous troll. He admires humans for their ability to create and build, even as humans continue to fear troll-kind. Chantecler might long for higher things, but civilization seems to have deranged his mind. Blemish, on the other hand, just wants to fill his belly.

The Hanging Judge is a strange, ghoulish, and wonderful play, underpinned with excellent acting: well worth seeing.

If the theatre has a certain kind of magic, then seeing the work of emerging playwrights is a bit like watching the sorcerer’s apprentice take a crack at spell-casting. Anything can happen and, when it does, you’ll want to be there.

The 2018 Cascadia Project is running now until October 7th— six new plays from six playwrights.