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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Theatre review: How to Survive an Apocalypse is more intellectual than affectual

“The apocalypse will not be gluten free.”

In playwright Jordan Hall’s ongoing exploration of what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, How to Survive an Apocalypse is filled with clever and witty dialogue but fails to deliver on tension.

What sets Hall’s new play apart from countless others of its kind though comes with the addition of a survivalist through-line.

Turns out that Bruce is a hunter/gatherer, who has made his goal in life by preparing for the collapse of civilization after being lost in the woods near Birkenhead as a child.  He challenges Tim and Jen to prepare for their own survival. Urban professionals Tim and Jen are at a crossroads. He spends his days at home in his boxers as he tries to find work as a video game programmer, and she is desperately trying to keep her failing lifestyle magazine afloat.  As the credit card bills continue to grow, their marriage hits its own apocalypse of sorts, as Jen finds herself attracted to Bruce, the man brought in to save her magazine. Add in Jen’s best friend recently dumped by her husband, and who also has eyes for Bruce, and you have the recipe for a typical romantic comedy.

The apocalypse is not new to Hall. In her superior Kayak, she explores the end-of-days with a sense of danger and humanity that is somehow missing in this latest outing. In Kayak we cared deeply about Hall’s characters and the outcome. In How To Survive an Apocalypse, however, that same danger and humanity never quite materializes. It makes it tough to care about the fate of characters we have little emotional connection with.

Where How To Survive an Apocalypse is most successful is in the exploration of the relationship between Tim and Jen. After five years they are grappling with the realities of marriage, but Hall layers so much on top, it loses focus. By the time the two must decide whether their relationship is worth saving, we are as ambiguous to the outcome as the playwright.

But even while the relationship between Tim and Jen holds some interest for us, the stakes are never really that high where it counts.  Here, this is an imagined apocalypse. Where Kayak dealt with a very real end-of-world scenario, How to Survive is more an intellectual exercise, where characters speak eloquently on important matters or are quick with a funny comeback. It is hard to get excited about the equivalent of running out to your local Costco for some bottled water and a first aid kit after watching news of an earthquake on the other side of the world. It makes one long for the real dangers of the Bruce Willis end-of-world movies that Tim rattles off one evening at home.

Breathing life into Hall’s characters are some nice performances from the quartet of actors. Claire Hesselgrave is once again in top form as the conflicted Jen, and Sebastien Archibald, who also appeared in Hall’s Kayak, is the embodiment of the man/boy who is forced to grow up.  As the interloper Bruce, Zahf Paroo is slow off the mark but soon finds his groove. Lindsay Angell is a delight, managing to bring the best friend stereotype to life with a few well-executed pauses and reactions.

Set designer David Roberts fills the Firehall black box with the play’s locales, set against a painted forest that extends from the scrim to the floor.  The exposed metal studs that surround the space are confusing. Director Katrina Dunn’s decision to clear the stage as the foursome venture into the woods, and then reset for the final scenes, is problematic.

During my recent chat with the playwright, she said that her next project would be on biodiversity, calling it “mass extinction with puppets”. I’m hoping she will once again find the balance between the humanity and the danger that made Kayak so successful.

How to Survive an Apocalypse by Jordan Hall. Directed by Katrina Dunn. A Touchstone Theatre presentation in association with the Playwrights Theatre Centre and the Firehall Arts Centre.  On stage at the Firehall Arts Centre (280 East Cordova St, Vancouver) until June 11. Visit for tickets and information.

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