Review: The Apologist (Cleen Theatre)
Colleen Osborn’s The Apologist , a Cleen Theatre production, is a two-hander comedy/thriller that follows a unique premise: what if it was socially acceptable to pay someone to apologize for you? What would the consequences of existing in such a world be? Set in the Imperial Pub’s back room, we are treated to a considered meditation on these ideas that manages to be both hilarious and legitimately tense.
Evan Walsh plays Cliff Manners, a.k.a. The Apologist, a professional apologizer who will express sympathy on behalf of anyone unwilling to do it themselves. The character Walsh has given form to is commendable for his warped sense of vulnerability. Since Manners is well-practiced and able to perform being sorry so well, the kick in the gut that comes from fessing up to a mistake no longer holds sway with him. Because he cannot have shame in his line of work, having to show regret for everything from white lies, to infidelity, to crimes against humanity, there’s no morality to reign in his behaviour. He comes off like a livewire, charming on the surface, but cocksure on the edge of causing irreparable harm under the impression of just doing his job. We meet him delivering an apology to a woman from the people who recently ran her dog over.
Carmen Kruk plays that woman’s roommate, Marsha, whose quirky, fragile exterior evolves very slowly into the fanaticism of Stephen King’s Misery. What Kruk does so well is emote, allowing facial expressions to do the heavy lifting, lending a sense of care and craft to her performance. What those expressions capture feels like a split personality, where psychosis intermittently overcomes Marsha’s kind and generous mind like a TV finding and losing reception. Kruk’s enunciation work is another point in favour of craft. There’s virtuoso flair to how she derives a laugh or a chill from stretching a word out or emphasizing the wrong syllable.
The Apologist is funnier than work this creepy tends to be, and it’s creepier than work this funny tends to be. Osborn’s writing chops offer her actors all the necessary tools to make this happen, including puns, made up words, snappy turns of phrase, and lots of emotional reversals that served to pull the rug from under my expectations at every turn. She also backs up the play’s name by getting philosophical about the nature of apologies. The characters spend a lot of time discussing what merits an apology, the importance of who delivers it, and what authenticity means in a world where mistaken tones in text messages can have life-changing consequences. Their back-and-forths are fruitful in that they leave arguments in the air to stew unresolved, pointing to the play’s unspoken but ever-present truth: an apology can only be validated by the person who receives it.
Director Chelsea Dab Hilke works wonders with such a small space. The set is built around two chairs and a chest in the center that delineate a round race track of sorts, one the actors take full advantage of to enhance a line. Sometimes it’s to create distance from and a barrier between each other to sharpen a show of emotion. At others, there’s a threat of violence and the desperate need to flee. Their dynamism is evidence of some first-class blocking work. The chairs’ proximity carries airs of a therapy session, of a level of intimacy we aren’t usually privy to beyond our own. I was unsettled by this, the possibility of some grand secret always seemingly about to drop. I also found the symbol of circularity a complementary choice, signalling that characters like these are destined to keep running into each other—Manners, who doesn’t differentiate between a real apology and an impeccably performed one, and Marsha, who is perhaps unstable enough to no longer be able to tell the difference.
Where the play gets a little careless is its run time. The second half drags on because the twists and revelations happen too early, such that the plot doesn’t have much juice left to propel the story to the end. Kruk and Walsh fill in the gap with plenty of passion though. I was too caught up in their characters’ concerns to notice. When it comes down to it, The Apologist is an entertaining, substantive endeavor that blends genres into art greater than the sum of its parts.
- Runs at the Imperial Pub (54 Dundas East) on Saturday, October 26, at 4pm and 8pm. Tickets here.
Poster of Evan Walsh provided by the company.