There came a moment when I discovered just how sincere and authentic Woody Harrelson & Frankie Hyman are about their new play Bullet for Adolf.
Tonight was the first preview in Toronto at Hart House Theatre, and afterwards they held a talkback session with the actors and audience. I asked a question, and in the process may have offended Frankie, although I didn’t see Woody’s response.
I guess it sounds weird to call them by their first names. Woody? You probably know him from his film & TV work. I think I had one of my biggest life lessons, courtesy Woody Harrelson. When I used to watch Cheers, I didn’t really differentiate between “Woody” the actor and “Woody” the role portrayed on Cheers. In my defense I point to the names being the same, and the uncanny goofiness Woody brought to Woody.
Let’s just say I underestimated the man: profoundly. Watching Natural Born Killers was the real eye opener, a role for which I think he should have won the oscar.
But excuse me, I digress. I was saying that my question may have offended Frankie.
My question was meant in all innocence. I first observed how authentic the writing seemed to my ear. I was nervous so I didn’t really say what I meant to say, about how the black people sounded authentically black, and vice versa. The question may have seemed racist, as I more or less asked who wrote what, and whether they achieved that authenticity by ensuring that the white guy wrote the white guy lines, and vice versa.
I saw Frankie wince, possibly embarrassed, before he more or less confirmed what I’d asserted, possibly feeling my question was a faux pas. I felt bad that I had called attention to the divisions that exist in society when, in the course of the play, the writers had done such a marvellous job of erasing those divisions.
In the pre-show publicity, Harrelson made a big deal about choosing Toronto as the site for this premiere. I wondered about that. Is it because we’re multi-cultural, and likely to be very comfortable with the sensitivities in the script? Possibly.
But then again the talk back was like a love-in. It had been a very successful preview, two and a quarter hours of steady laughs from an audience delighted by what they’d seen and heard. Torontonians love to be flattered, love to be told how cosmopolitan we are; so perhaps it was a done deal that the show would go over well. But by the same token, we may be easy but we’re not cheap (or the theatre-going equivalent). The laughs were genuine.
I don’t want to give anything away –as a devout believer in the spoiler-free review—but let me just say that the title contains a kernel of poetic truth that elevates the material beyond mere laughs. The comedy is at times very edgy, challenging the audience’s willingness to laugh. I found that aspect the most exciting, that this genuinely felt like a work of art rather than a commercial vehicle, even if there’s the possibility of a big-time payoff at the box office.
Bullet for Adolf is set in the early 1980s. The production magically teleports into that time through a regular use of video, by Christian Peterson & Jeremy Hutton. Between scenes we’d watch combinations of images & music taking us back to the big hair, the moves & music of the time. Occasionally, just to see if we were paying attention, some of the characters from the play would turn up in those little vignettes. But this is a very self-conscious bit of time-travel from Woody & Frankie, in a play that at times resembles a flashback.
When I put this in context with the last two plays I saw –by a pair of Brits named Martin Crimp & David Greig—I can’t miss the difference. Crimp & Greig are doing what modern theatre does well: express alienation and pain for the usual theatre-goer. I was ready for a play that leaves you feeling good afterwards, and Harrelson/Hyman delivered. Whereas I can’t imagine addressing either of the famous playwrights by their first names, it goes without saying that Bullet for Adolf is unpretentious, a play bordering on guileless in its eagerness to have fun.
But by the same token, the play does have an edge. There’s a great deal of abrasion in some of the exchanges, a fair amount of conflict, and suspense too. I quibble with the play’s subtitle (“almost a comedy”), because to my eye/ear it’s very much a comedy.
The preview went very smoothly with no muffed lines that I could recognize and some tightly choregraphed fights & dance, the physicality coming as a very welcome release.
There were no weak links among the performers. Brandon Coffey’s Zach & Ronnie Rowe’s Frankie were always persuasive, particularly in their first bristling encounters in their workplace; their mastery of physical labour—shovelling and climbing scaffolds—made the early scenes at work very believable. Meghan Swaby as Shareeta was a force to be reckoned with, and never less than fascinating.