With the opening of Cherry Docs at the McManus Studio Theatre on March 3rd, the Grand has brought back an institution that lay dormant for over a decade: in-house productions for their smaller stage. They have even reclaimed the name that was used back in the days when Martha Henry was at the helm by calling their McManus programming The UnderGrand Series.
The McManus has been a busy theatre over the past few years, but the productions were rentals of the space by such local companies as Theatre Soup, Rubberfunk, Ausable Theatre and Theatre Nemesis, or festivals, such as the Fringe and the London One-Act Festival. The Grand has also brought in shows from elsewhere, but these were imports, and not Grand Theatre productions.
Imported productions at the McManus have had limited success in recent years, probably because there has been no particular hook for London audiences. If they have no knowledge of the plays, the playwrights, the actors or the directors, Londoners are not inclined to venture out in large numbers.
According to Christopher Doty, who laid out the theatre’s history in the documentary Let’s Go to the Grand for its centennial season, the Grand has not produced a show in the McManus since 1993, when Martha Henry commissioned a play from Hermann Goodden called Slippery: You Can’t Get There From Here, about the sea lion that became a London icon.
The play chosen by Grand Artistic Director Susan Ferley to revive the UnderGrand phenomenon is David Gow’s tour-de-force, Cherry Docs, which premiered at Toronto’s Factory Theatre in 1998, garnering rave reviews and winning Chalmers and Dora awards for the script. It has subsequently been picked up by companies across Canada and abroad.
Cherry Docs are boots – deep red lace-up combat boots that become lethal weapons on the feet of angry, disenfranchised white males with racist attitudes and an axe to grind. One of the two characters in the play is Michael, who stands accused of a racially-motivated murder in which he used his Cherry Docs on a young East Asian fast food worker. The other is Daniel, a legal aid lawyer with a liberal outlook and a Jewish heritage. His job is to provide legal defence for Michael, but his ideals of tolerance are severely tested by his own feelings of intolerance and even violence that arise when dealing with Michael.
Theatre critic Christopher Winsor described Cherry Docs as a play that successfully brings to light not only the primal issues of hatred and violence, but also the ideological forces that either fuel them or try to keep them in check. It’s a rich, powerful scenario between “high-stakes characters who are playing for keeps”.
Cherry Docs plays at the Grand’s McManus Studio Theatre until March 13th.
Next in the Grand’s UnderGrand series (March 23-27) is Frankie, a one-woman comedy/drama written and performed by Mary Ellen MacLean. The main character’s high school reunion brings back a pickup truck full of memories about growing up gay in small town Nova Scotia.