When one of the characters at the top of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf**ker with the Hat snorts a line while talking with her mother on the phone and tidying up her apartment, you know you’re in for a ride. And thanks to the tremendous cast in the inaugural production of the Haberdashery Theatre Company, that ride is at times as exciting as a roller coaster.
Recently out of jail, sober, and with a brand new job, things are finally looking up for Jackie. Problem is while his long-term girlfriend Veronica might have a job, she has yet to join him on the road to sobriety. According to Jackie’s sponsor that is a receipt for disaster. As Guirgis explores the highs and lows of addiction on life, love and friendship, the cyclical nature of Jackie and Veronica’s difficult relationship may finally come to a head.
Before diving too much further into this production, let’s first deal with the elephant in the room. Originally written with the characters of Jackie, Veronica, and Cousin Julio as Puerto Rican, this production was criticized by some for its casting of non-Latinx actors in the roles of Jackie and Veronica (Chilean born Francisco Trujillo plays Julio). While there are some obvious, and even more subtle references to Jackie and Veronica’s Puerto Rican heritage, this is largely non-issue. Once you get over Jackie’s first entrance (“These flowers are for my ‘Beautiful Boriqua Taino Mamacita Love Me Long Time Princess fuckin’ Beauty Queen’”), the production largely settles into the New York melting pot that the playwright says is an acceptable alternative.
Where things get a little incongruous is Trujillo’s obvious Latino take on Julio. In his notes the playwright warns the actor playing Julio not to “fall victim to overdoing it” and while Trujillo works hard to rise above what can easily devolve into stereotype, his performance is in stark contrast to the rest of the cast. It also doesn’t help that Julio is relegated to simply being the voice of reason within a group that seems to have lost most of theirs.
As Jackie and Veronica, Stephen Lobo and Kyra Zagorsky effectively maneuver the minefield of their troubled relationship. There is a wonderful balance in their love/hate relationship, and the passion/pain that they share, that is ultimately believable. They are so effective here that by the time the play reaches its conclusion you are as torn as the two characters.
As Jackie’s AA sponsor Ralph D, John Cassini is perfectly suited to the man who has been living with his own demons. It is here that Guirgis is really successful, by reminding us that while addiction has the ability to tear lives apart, they are not mutually exclusive; for while Ralph D might not have fallen off the wagon in fifteen years, he’s just as messed up as those that do.
As Ralph D’s wife Victoria, Lori Triolo is a powerhouse, and in a sea of talent, gives one of the best performances of the night. In the scene where she attacks the notion of a “bro code”, she manages an underlying vulnerability in her attraction to Jackie that is simply breathtaking.
Brian Markinson directs each of the scenes with a blistering pace, but while the addition of Eric Banerd on percussion during scene changes is a pleasure to listen to, it does slow down the transitions. Perhaps meant to give audiences time to breathe between each intense scene, it does have the effect of interrupting the shows’ rhythm.
Lauchlin Johnston’s set is one of the best that the Firehall blackbox has seen in recent memory. The play’s three distinct locations are represented by realistic stacked cutaways, all superbly lit by Gerald King.
While largely dealing in a raw exploration of the effects of addiction on love and friendship, The Motherf**ker with the Hat manages to transcend that narrow focus to remind us that life is rarely easy. And even while we might not fully buy into Ralph D’s idea that in the larger scheme of things what we do to each other in our relationships doesn’t really matter, it does remind us that we really are responsible for our point along the happiness spectrum.
The Motherf**ker with the Hat is a great start to one of our city’s newest theatre companies. Hopefully there is more to come.
The Motherf**ker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Brian Markinson. A Firehall Arts Centre production in association with Haberdashery Theatre Company. On stage at the Firehall Arts Centre until January 30. Visit http://firehallartscentre.ca for tickets and information.