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Cipher: as in zero

by | Feb 13, 2020 | Review | 1 comment

The Arts Club and Vertigo Theatre are presenting Cipher at the Granville Island Stage

They stare at one another and we stare at them, waiting for something meaningful to happen.
(Photo of Ellen Close and Praneet Akilla by David Cooper)

A cipher can be a code. It can also be a zero. Cipher is a play about a code — and a play that adds up to very little.

In Cipher, playwrights Ellen Close and Braden Griffiths invent a 63-year-old cold case. In that fictional mystery, a man’s body is found on the beach in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park in 1956. All of the tags have been cut out of his clothing and the words “taman shud” have been sewn into his jacket sleeves. Those are the final words of The Rubaiyat, a Persian poem attributed to Omar Khayyam. They translate as “finished”. Weeks later, somebody finds a copy of The Rubaiyat that’s been marked in an indecipherable code.

Cut to 2019 and Grace Godard, a toxicology professor who’s obsessed with the Beacon Hill death. (The dead man’s spleen was enlarged, which points to poisoning.) Grace quickly gains an ally — and a lover — in Aqeel Saleemi, an engineering student who has a personal interest in the body on the beach. (Aqeel and the victim are both South Asian and there are rumours that the victim had a secret white lover. There are only two dots to connect.)

Major problem: there is no reason to care about any of this. There are no stakes — or at least none that resonate. Aqeel wants to figure out why his white grandmother was so mean to him, but we never see that relationship so, theatrically speaking, it doesn’t matter. And tough-talking, no-nonsense Grace is about as personally appealing as a stapler, so there’s no reason to invest in the sex she keeps having with Aqeel.

In Act 2, CSIS starts tracking the amateur sleuths because they’ve been illegally piggybacking on other people’s computers to generate enough digital brain power to crack the code. But — spoiler alert — both CSIS and the amateurs are chasing phantoms. After two acts, the narrative machinations finally come to a resolution, but the result amounts to sweet nothing, a cipher. This might mean that the title is supposed to be clever and that the script is attempting to reinvent the mystery genre as director Craig Hall hints in his program notes. But that would be like reinventing birthdays by giving empty boxes: there’s no satisfaction in it.

Especially in its coda, Cipher would like to be socially relevant — although Grace suffers no consequences for her actions, Aqeel does — but the world of the play is so underdeveloped that, to me at least, its exploration of racism feels superficial.

Playing Grace, playwright Ellen Close brings the brusque, clean-edged confidence the role requires. But it’s hard to hear a lot of what Praneet Akilla is saying as Aqeel. Akilla speaks in staccato bursts and, in an odd quirk, he hits his consonants hard without supporting his vowels. Playing the CSIS agent, Braden Griffiths, the other playwright, overacts his brogues off. Stylistically, he’s in his own play, something director Hall should have attended to.

There are two other performers: Arash Khakpour is the body and Delia Brett takes the role of the woman who was his lover. They mostly dance their parts — the choreography is by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg — and they do a solid job of it. In the most visually satisfying moments, caresses between Aqeel and Grace are echoed in caresses between the man and his partner.

Visually, the rest of the evening is less satisfying. In her set, Narda McCarroll offers a bunch of sleek upright rectangles that become doors as they spin on their axes and that provide surfaces for projections supplied by Jamie Nesbitt. This is all well done as far as it goes, but it feels so old hat.

Time in the theatre is precious. Why waste it on hollow distractions?

CIPHER By Ellen Close and Braden Griffiths. Directed by Craig Hall. Coproduced by the Arts Club Theatre and Vertigo Theatre. At the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage on Wednesday, February 12. Continues until March 7.Tickets.


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1 Comment

  1. Chester Benson

    so correct.


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