A rock and a hard place
Topical two-hander from Cave Canem packs powerful punch at Pacific Theatre
What does a neo-nazi “skinhead” look like when stripped of his Goth flash and steel-toed boots?
As depicted by Kenton Klassen in Cave Canem theatre company’s current revival of Canadian playwright David Gow’s Cherry Docs, Mike, the skinhead, comes across as hairless little salamander. The only visible traces of the warped ideology raging in his shaven skull are a few runic tattoos peeping out from the cuffs and collars of his prison jump-suit.
His court-appointed legal aid attorney, Daniel (John Voth), towers over him, resplendent in full beard, three-piece suit and orotund baritone. Yet the sniveling prisoner claims to champion the white, male bulwark of Western Civ, while the lawyer (according to skinhead dogma) typifies the skulking, wimpy “Zionist Occupational” hoax of “liberal humanism.”
Ironic, then, that the prisoner’s sole hope to ever draw another unincarcerated breath rests precisely on the lawyer’s liberal humanist quaint notion that everyone, no matter how repugnant, is entitled to a committed legal defence and a chance at rehabilitation. All the more challenging for the Jewish lawyer, son of Holocaust survivors, to maintain these tenets in defense of a neo-nazi.
But Danny’s not letting his client off easy, either. The facts of the crime are not in dispute: the skinhead, stoned and drunk at a concert, stomped a random Hindu to death with the aforementioned steel-toes. With guilt uncontested, the only case to be made is for a shorter sentence with a prospect of eventual parole on the premise that such a defendant could ever be conceivably rehabilitated.
That’s a hard sell, under the circumstances. And it’s hardly helped by Mike’s initial indifference to the LibTard niceties of jury trial. Yet, much as Danny despises his client, he detects in him a glimmer of untapped intelligence that’s been left to fester in a dead-end lumpen milieu. With this as a lever, he proceeds to deconstruct the little nazi over the next intermission-free 90 minutes and recast him into something more recognizably human.
Danny starts by vividly evoking the horror of lifelong jail time. He spices it up with taunting comparisons between his own privileged life as a well-paid, happily married lawyer and Mike’s unmitigated prospect of endless solitary confinement.
Danny then loads his highschool-dropout client with some 400 pages of background reading, so as to devise some credible line of defence. Mike must go solo on this, with no lawyerly inputs. From Danny he’ll only get profane – sometimes physically threatening – drill-sergeant harangues.
Forced into a completely alien exercise of introspection, Mike frays and then shatters. But for the first time in his life, he’s being taken seriously, as someone whose sheer existence is consequential for himself and for others. We’ve moved way beyond a lawyer-client relationship into realms of psychotherapy, “enhanced P.O.W. interrogation” or religious exorcism.
The religious analogy is underscored in the script, which alternates brutal dialogue with lyrical – even mystical – soliloquys (à la Shakespeare, according to Gow’s website) that draw on everything from Zohar verses to “white pride” tribal canons. Pi Theatre magus Richard Wolfe, directing Cherry Docs, intercuts scenes of both types at a headlong, jazzy pace.
Against the backdrop of Sandy Margaret’s understated stage set – a blandly institutional jailhouse visiting room, bare as a monastic cell – lighting designer Phil Miguel shifts between moody side-spots that emphasize the tonsured, monkish, meditative solitude of Mike, versus harsh overhead pendant lights for Danny’s hellfire sermons and inquisitions.
The designedly claustrophobic staging and religious subtexts make Cherry Docs an ideal fit for the church-basement black box stage of the Pacific Theatre, whose artistic director, Ron Reed, has made a career of proving that spiritual dramaturgy need not be sanctimoniously preachy.
In a climactic “exorcism” scene, Mike’s brought face-to-face with the real consequences of his action when forced to read aloud the transcript of his victim’s deathbed statement. And in that newly opened space, with howls of protest, he starts to grow.
It’s a wrenching process. At first he snaps back into full nazi mode, maundering on in eerily breathless and exalted tones about his “soldierly” duty to “his people” and his “Christian God.” Then he lunges for a trash basket to puke out all this dredged-up filth.
Thus purged, he can glimpse a possibility of real repentance and credible rehabilitation. He intuits some of the social forces that played into his delusions, and the social urgency of pointing a path out of them.
This he lays out in a stirring summation statement that he rehearses with Danny. The court buys it; he’s sentenced to seven years, as per his own request, with conditional possibility of parole – a born-again redemption for Mike, a career-making triumph for Danny.
But, by the Laws of the Conservation of Deviltry, exorcised demons inevitably seek out a new host. Danny, car-commuting to his jailhouse interviews, unearths buried biases of his own when he finds his Volvo surrounded by ghetto-toughs or squeegee-wielding pan-handlers. And his glory-boy obsession with this high-profile defense comes at the expense of the very same model marriage that he’d invoked to torment Mike.
In the end, it’s the lawyer who’s foundering in the dark and it’s left to the skinhead to condole and gently steer him to introspection. Not exactly a friendship, but a bitterly understanding co-dependency. Ringing all these emotional changes, the two co-stars turn Cherry Docs into an allegorical play of ideas, rather than a plausibly naturalistic story arc.
Both performances hold us with an oxymoronic allure: the overweening vulnerability of Vogt’s Danny versus the incisive intelligence wrapped in a braggadocious wimp of Klassen’s Mike. The two of them, along with Cherry Docs producer, Brandon Bate, are co-founders of the recently fledged Cave Canem company.
The name is Latin for “Beware of the Dog.” As Cherry Docs shows, Cave Canem is a dog to be reckoned with – impressive bark and plenty of bite.