Pippa Mackie and Maryanne Renzetti in the Staircase Theatre production of Hunter Gatherers. Photo by Ivan Yastrebov.
Pippa Mackie and Maryanne Renzetti in the Staircase Theatre production of Hunter Gatherers. Photo by Ivan Yastrebov.

I admit to cracking open my copy of Joy of Cooking when I got home from the Havana Theatre last night after watching the Staircase Theatre production of Hunter Gatherers. Maybe it was because my edition has the word “new” in its title, but I couldn’t find the any of the instructions Richard reads to his wife in the opening sequence of this hilariously dark play by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb.

[pullquote]Hunter Gatherers is not only bloody brilliant, it is also one of the funniest plays you’ll see this season, performed by a very talented cast. Grab your other half by the hair and go.[/pullquote]In Nachtrieb’s exploration of the how our primal urges have come to shape some of our basic social conventions, the play tells the story of two couples reunited for their annual dinner party celebrating their wedding anniversaries. Friends since high school, the foursome’s yearly ritual is at times as base as any of our primitive ancestors, all thinly disguised behind the artifice of a polite dinner party. There are sacrifices to be made, partners to be conquered (and mounted) and, in the end, at least one of the gatherers among the bunch discovers that perhaps she isn’t so much into berries and twigs as she once thought.

I don’t want to spoil the surprises that await in Hunter Gatherers, but based on some of the internet discourse right now, I have a feeling there are many who believe that what takes place would be a pretty typical dinner party at Jian Ghomeshi’s house.

Nachtrieb’s script is very funny, but it is also very smart. Where it would have been easy to create one-dimensional cartoon characters that find themselves inside these sometimes surreal situations, Nachtrieb finds the reality. And even as the evening spirals further and further into chaos, there is still enough to distinguish between the Homo sapiens and the Neanderthal.

But to bring Nachtrieb’s witty script to life requires a talented cast, and director Ryan Gladstone has assembled a cast here that is up to the challenge, with a chemistry and obvious trust that is heightened by the intimacy of the venue.

Jay Clift and Peter Carlone in Hunter Gatherers. Photo by Ivan Yastrebov.
Jay Clift and Peter Carlone in Hunter Gatherers. Photo by Ivan Yastrebov.

It’s hard to keep your eyes off Pippa Mackie who plays Pam, the sweetly naive spouse who has the biggest epiphany of the evening, with a transformation that is simply astounding to witness. When she is called upon to cry, she cries. When she is called upon to be hysterical, she walks the edge. When she is called upon to have an orgasm, she puts Meg Ryan in her place.

Peter Carlone proves he is just as talented as a solo actor as he is with his sidekick Chris. Carlone knows comedy and it shows, but he also knows that to make really great comedy isn’t always about having the punchline; his bathroom scene is a master lesson in the reaction, his timing is superb and the pathos he injects into Tom helps temper the madness.

As the earth-mother Wendy, Maryanne Renzetti never holds back, a voluptuous huntress with a single goal in mind, she is hilarious as she belittles her husband, “The closest thing Tom has to an orgasm is an apology”, while on a singular mission to acquire the seed between host Richard’s legs: “I’ve been craving flesh all day”.

Jay Clift as the Alpha male Richard so believes in his dominance that as he bends his best friend over the couch, it seems a perfectly natural part of who he is. Clift arguably has the toughest job of the night as he starts further along the primal spectrum than the others, but manages to maintain that intensity throughout.

My only real beef (cough) here, and it is a small one, is with the meat dish destined to be devoured. While I realize presenting a cooked lamb on stage each night is not within the realm of possibilities, I had a tough time getting over the fact the thing in the roasting pan looked a whole lot more like E.T. than Lambchop.

Exterterrestrial dishes aside though, Hunter Gatherers is not only bloody brilliant, it is also one of the funniest plays you’ll see this season, performed by a very talented cast. Grab your other half by the hair and go.

(A final word of warning though, Hunter Gatherers is not for the faint of heart.  If you get woozy from the sight of blood or are offended by violence and simulated sex, this play is definitely not for you.)

Hunter Gatherers by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. Directed by Ryan Gladstone. A Staircase Theatre production. On stage at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Dr) through November 15. Visit http://staircasetheatre.com for tickets and information.