The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Haberdashery Theatre Company's production of Stephen Adly Guirgis's fantastic script that is playing at the Firehall until January 30th, has been the subject of a controversy over race and casting that has gone straight to the heart of some entrenched issues in the world of Vancouver theatre. The controversy has led to important dialogue, essential questions, and more than a few entertainingly heated Facebook threads. Yet it would be a shame if the debate prevented anyone from going to see a hilarious and powerful piece of theatre.
The controversy certainly did not seem to hurt sales at the packed premiere I attended. The Motherf**ker with the Hat (henceforth referred to as The Mofo, for brevity's sake) captivated the audience both with cutting dialogue and scenes of hold-your-breath dramatic tension, and was met with a passionate ovation at curtain call. The Mofo is a story about Jackie (Stephen Lobo), who has freshly been released from prison and is in need of a real job, a place to stay, and a way of escaping his substance addiction and the self-sabotaging patterns the addiction represents. In his first onstage scene, he arrives at his girlfriend Veronica's flat bearing gifts like flowers and a "bear that grips and shit." He rhapsodizes about his plans for the amazing future life him and Veronica (Kyra Zagorsky) will share, which of course immediately signals to the audience just how wrong shit is about to go. While Veronica is in the shower getting ready for that first post-prison hook-up, Jackie scans her dresser and makes note both of the cocaine she had just inhaled and a strange man's hat. He chooses to confront Veronica about her cheating, which sends him into the arms and couch of his drug addiction sponsor, Ralph D (John Cassini), who may not be much of a friend or a counselor.
It's hard to do full justice to The Mofo's brilliant profanity; practically every scene had a fresh laugh, and I loved Ralph D bragging about the benefits of his yoga habit with the line, "Not to be an asshole, but I'm fucking limber, dude." Jackie gets confronted, berated, and mocked by every other character including his cousin Julio (Francisco Trujillo) and Ralph D's wife Victoria (Lori Triolo). Nobody lets him feel sorry for himself, and a character asks him if he wants "a medal for doing what you're supposed to." The play mines humour from the incongruity of these tough guys' newfound love for yoga and juicing, which also serves as pointed commentary on gentrification in New York. But the script also takes apart the absurdity and contradictions of the codes of masculinity that Jackie bewilderedly jumps between, whether those are the unspoken rules of the bro code or the overly detailed dogma of twelve-step programs.
The cast is uniformly strong, and their passion for the work is evident in every scene. Triolo just about set fire to the stage during one bravura rant about her deep loathing for her husband, and Cassini nails the sleaze and sanctimony of Ralph D. Trujillo transcends the gay stereotypes that the character of Julio flirts with, and triggered some of the biggest laughs of the production with physical comedy and threats to "go Van Damme". Zagorsky's Veronica owned the room from her first hilarious one-sided phone conversation with her unseen mother, and took evident pleasure in delivering the script's filthy tirades—she insists her mother's new boyfriend looks like a fish and asks her, "When you look at him, do you wanna fuck him or fry him up?" Unfortunately, both Zagorsky and Lobo attempt a shaky Puerto Rican accent that eventually slipped into a generic New Yorkese that would have worked for the entire play—the Latino accents seemed gratuitous. Lobo had the challenge of making the audience care about the essentially passive Jackie, and he got stronger as the play went on, settling into the menace and physicality of the role. The climactic scenes between Jackie and Veronica were captivating and intense and their fiery chemistry was undeniable.
This production received criticism for casting white actors to play the Puerto Rican characters of Jackie and Veronica, and I'm sure it was painful for one new, small, well-meaning, and perhaps not particularly lucrative theatre company to have its casting processes scrutinized in the national media. It is clearly a larger and more systemic problem that was not created by Haberdashery Theatre. It's vitally important that minority actors, playwrights, and directors have opportunities to find work and to see people who look like them at every level of Vancouver's theatre scene. This controversy has raised important questions about the theatre world's insularity and cliquishness—a tendency to cast friends instead of holding open auditions can often lead to unthinking exclusion. That said, low-budget theatre productions don't have the same resources as TV or Hollywood to fly in candidates, and finding a one-to-one match of ethnicity and actor is an unrealistic standard to meet. It would truly be sad if in the future companies shy away from telling stories about non-white characters for fear of being criticized. Yet why is it that I can imagine one day being in a Vancouver theatre watching a white dude "bravely" playing Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks and somehow winning plaudits for doing so? What I'm trying to say is, don't go see this terrible imaginary play I just made up. Go see The Motherf**ker with the Hat instead. It's f**king awesome.
The Motherf**ker with the Hat runs January 16 to 30, 2016 at the Firehall Arts Centre. For tickets and showtimes, visit firehallartscentre.ca.