Cherry Docs: steel-toed and heavy-handed

Cave Canem is presenting Cherry Docs at Pacific Theatre.

John Voth and Kenton Klassen paper over some script issues in the legal drama Cherry Docs. (Photo by Jason Benson)

 

Guest review by David Johnston

It’s a good production and, when the script occasionally gets out of its own way, it becomes great.

In Cave Canem’s latest outing, neo-Nazi skinhead Mike (Kenton Klassen) has stomped a Hindu man to death; liberal Jewish lawyer Danny (John Voth) is assigned as his counsel. They obviously don’t like each other, but Mike needs Danny to save him from a lengthy prison sentence and Danny needs Mike to… honestly, Danny’s initial impulse for taking the case is never quite clarified. As a challenge? An obsession? Danny needs Mike because if Danny didn’t need Mike, there’d be no show. Get on board.

What follows is … not exactly a legal procedural, although Cherry Docs dresses up in a procedural jumpsuit and struts around for a while. That’s actually a good thing; law dramas have become ridonkulously prolific since the play’s 1998 debut, so it’s swell that this isn’t merely the rote story of an amateur lawyer defending a client he hates. Sure, David Gow’s script tells that story, but it’s in the background of the real plot.

This isn’t How To Acquit A Skinhead 101. The murder victim is left nameless (a deeply uncomfortable decision) and the legal machinations are presented as an afterthought, so the show can focus on the feelings of two straight white men. (Incidentally, this is the point where Cherry Docs feels most dated; an odd-couple legal drama written today would likely find slightly more diverse starting positions for its two protagonists.)

The story becomes a dual character study as Mike crawls out of hell, whilst Danny descends down to grab his hand. Danny doesn’t want to defend Mike; he wants to redeem him, and he doesn’t realize this until he’s in the thick of it.

There are deeply compelling images scattered through the 90-minute runtime. Danny and Mike savagely stalk around a limbo-like interview room, or deliver monologues from enclosed cells of light. A practice interrogation tensely starts, then spectacularly explodes with spiritual undertones. But it’s almost like a montage; the aggressive time jumps tend to skip past a lot of the smaller character beats in the parallel journeys our heroes undergo.

The script and Richard Wolfe’s direction focus disproportionately on Danny — the less interesting of the two — and, though Voth does solid work making him subtly broken, it’s Klassen who’s the revelation. His Mike wears a skin at once loathsome and charismatic, and strips it off in jagged, brittle layers. In the best scene, Mike sits in a dim spotlight, flicking a Bic lighter on and off, his face cycling through a hundred expressions with every spark. Everything is pin-drop silent. I couldn’t have been more riveted. Props to everyone involved in this moment, including lighting designer Phil Miguel, for crafting an indelible image that is effectively echoed later on.

But for every perfect, restrained moment, there are moments where Cherry Docs bludgeons you over the head with the subtext by making it text, and then supertext, underlining and boldfacing it to be sure you Get! The! Metaphor! The worst example, surprisingly, comes after the show: as the audience files out, projections appear to illuminate the biblical significance of the characters’ names. They literally create giant glowing letters to hammer home the point in case you missed it. It’s an insultingly condescending creative decision that sours the whole production. I wanted to throw a shoe at the stage.

The design is equally mixed. Sandy Peters’s set is effectively cramped and bureaucratic, and Julie Edgerly’s various suits are subtly designed in what they reveal as the layers come off. (Plus Mike’s tattoowork is a visual opera.) But Matthew MacDonald-Bain’s sound composition is jarring and intrusive. It doesn’t sound period-appropriate; it doesn’t sound anything other than loud.

The show desperately strives for relevance, occasionally to its detriment. Cherry Docs takes great strides, though its laces are sometimes tied together.

CHERRY DOCS Written by David Gow. Directed by Richard Wolfe. Presented by Pacific Theatre and Cave Canem. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, April 5. Continues until April 28. Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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