James Long, of Theatre Replacement, and Marcus Youssef, of Neworld Theatre, are frequent artistic collaborators and close friends. In Winners and Losers, on through Saturday at SFU Woodward’s as part of the PuSh Festival, they test the strength of both bonds in a concept piece where the stakes keep getting higher and higher.
The premise is simple: the men sit across from each other at a table and begin lumping different people and places and things into one of two categories, winners or losers. At times the objects of analysis (Pamela Anderson, lululemon, ping pong--which they actually play), and the tenor of the debate, are fairly benign. But soon things get personal, as Long and Youssef start adding up each other’s credits and debits, including relationships, street smarts vs. worldly wisdom, past artistic successes and failures, and especially class privilege and literal family inheritance. Indeed, the piece turns--and turns downright nasty--on the extent to which each actor can rack up points by demonstrating how the one’s wealthy background and the other’s hardscrabble working class roots are incommensurable with their present-day social realities and political sympathies. (I won’t give things away by revealing whose house costs more, although I will note I was surprised that race factored only obliquely into the men’s perorations.) Partly scripted and partly improvised, the piece’s dramatic tension accumulates in the same way that capital does: by seeing just how far, and at what cost, one person will go to beat another--even a close friend.
And we, in the audience, are not exempt from the game’s theatrical fallout. First, socialized by a similar logic governing everything from organized sport to institutionalized education to our systems of government, we can’t help but keep score. Then, too, there are those brutal shocks of abject recognition when we discover--as of course we must in a show such as this--that some aspect of ourselves (with which we may or may not identify) qualifies us, in another’s mind, as a loser. It’s Artaudian theatre of cruelty taken to a whole other metaphysical (and meta-theatrical) plane.
Expertly directed--or should I say refereed?--by Chris Abraham, of Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre (where the show travels next), this is a work that is as emotionally bracing as it is intellectually stimulating, a punch in the gut that packs deep insights into the problem of fit between people and categories. One of which is this: the problem is with the categories, not the people.