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The Cull: revelatory design and direction

by | Feb 10, 2023 | Review | 1 comment

publicity photo for The Cull

I wasn’t expecting this stylized staging of The Cull. (Photo by Moonrider Productions)

Not to take anything away from the actors or anybody else, the real stars of this premiere stage production of The Cull are director Mindy Parfitt and set designer Amir Ofek. Their treatment of Michelle Riml and Michael St. John Smith’s script elevates it spectacularly.

As written, the play is naturalistic. In their 12,000-square-foot home, Nicole and Paul are hosting a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary dinner for their friends, the decidedly less wealthy Emily and Lewis. Lynne, another friend from their high school years, is also there to celebrate, along with her super-rich husband, John.

I first heard The Cull as an audio play in January of 2022. (Covid had scuttled the Arts Club’s plans to stage it.) Back then, I couldn’t tell what kind of world the play was trying to inhabit. Was it a sitcom? A melodrama?

But, with a stunning set of decisions, Parfitt and Ofek have established stylistic coherence. As I said, the baseline of the written script is naturalism: there are all sorts of references to food prep (slicing, tasting) and specific props, including bamboo napkins. But Parfitt and Ofek have discarded physical naturalism.

Ofek’s set is a gigantic square that looks like a thick, stylized slab of wood. The only other set piece is an enormous, exquisite chandelier: it looks like a collection of simple, delicate seashells.

On the slab, the actors sit on white, modernist chairs.

The characters still talk about tasting the food and folding the napkins — but they don’t do any of those things, which adds a revelatory level of abstraction. We can suddenly see how their conversations are rituals of dominance, alliance, and information seeking.

Parfitt’s setting of the actors’ movements, including their arrangements of the chairs, is satisfyingly choreographic. And the slab spins! It’s on a revolve, which makes the choreography feel even more sophisticated.

Thanks in large part to these choices, The Cull looks so much better than it sounded the first time I experienced it.

And the script is undeniably ambitious. Basically, it’s about materialism, our appetite for things, which is, of course, the driving force of capitalism and environmental collapse. (This is another way in which the marked absence of objects in the set is clever.)

The script is also about selfishness and hypocrisy, the ways in which we take what we want, even though we are deliberately performing a more virtuous set of values. Nicole, the hostess, performs — and no doubt experiences — environmental sensitivity, and she criticizes John, the uber-capitalist, but she still wants that chandelier and, although she insists it’s for the kids, the new pool.

This solipsism is set in contrast to the natural world — and genuine affection. Lewis, the guy who doesn’t make much money, is an outdoorsman; in a quasi-mystical speech, he talks about coming across a female wolf who had been caught in a leghold trap as part of a cull.

And, in another textual highlight of the evening, Paul toasts the love between Lewis and Emily. His toast reduced me to tears.

For all of its ambition, though, I wanted more from the script. I appreciate the territory that Riml and Sant John Smith are exploring, but it’s also familiar to me: thematically The Cull doesn’t offer much surprise or challenge. There is a throughline about possible marital infidelity that’s signalled too clearly and plays out too predictably. And the play runs on a simplistic confrontation between good and evil. There’s a clear villain — it won’t take you long to figure out who that is — and an obvious hero. Because there’s so little complexity to the characters, I lost interest in them — and that’s a big deal.

That said, Parfitt has assembled a strong cast. For me, Stephen Lobo, who’s playing Lewis, is a particular standout. The guy is so subtle! Sometimes, when Lobo’s Lewis is in conflict with his wife Emily, he bows his head and shoots her a playful little glance from under his brow, hoping for reconciliation. It’s charming.

I also particularly enjoyed Dawn Petten’s Emily. She is so openhearted that her response to Paul’s toast is a large part of what made me cry.

John Cassini (John), Jasmine Chen (Lynne), Craig Erickson (Paul) and Meghan Gardiner (Nicole) also make strong contributions to the music of this piece.

So: superb direction, excellent set, and strong performances. The script is smart and ambitious, but I wanted to think — and especially feel — more.

THE CULL by Michelle Riml and Michael St. John Smith. Directed by Mindy Parfitt. An Arts Club Theatre production at the Granville Island Stage on February 9. Running until February 26. Tickets and information

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1 Comment

  1. Kelly Johnson

    Hey, you. Thanks for this. I will admit to having glazed over several times during the performance on Thursday – all those words! As I explained – although I appreciated several aspects of it. But as always, I am struck by your much superior powers of observation and knowledge of craft and intelligence at the theatre and, as always, you have given me a fresh perspective. Lovely.


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