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A City: Greg MacArthur’s thoughtful blurring of fact and fiction

In Greg MacArthur’s fluid and circular play A City, four friends reminisce about many things, but mostly about a famous fifth friend.

Michael Cooper

3 out of 4 stars

Title
A City
Written by
Greg MacArthur
Directed by
Jennifer Tarver
Actors
Amy Keating, David Patrick Flemming, Justin Goodhand, Cole J. Alvis
Venue
Artscape Sandbox
City
Toronto

In Greg MacArthur's fluid and circular play A City, four friends reminisce about many things, but mostly about a famous fifth friend. We'll call him Shia LaBeouf. We'll call him Shia LaBeouf because that's what his friends call him – he died years earlier and it is still too emotional to refer to him by his real name.

Apparently the late LaBeouf was quite a guy; his friends are semi-disciples of him. He would photograph the four of them in a series of scenes that portrayed the death of civilization: tableaux vivants depicting the bubonic plague, the U.S. Civil War, the death of punk and other historical bummers.

LaBeouf saw something in the four. He illuminated them. He forced them to see things about themselves they were avoiding. He showed them vulnerability – something needed to be a good person, we are told, and to be a good actor.

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The world-premiering A City is the second in a trilogy of plays from MacArthur inspired by real-life collaborators in three different Canadian cities. The first in the series, the intellectual A Man Vanishes, presented at Videofag in the spring of 2016, was loosely based on Shohei Imamura's acclaimed 1967 film-noir classic of the same name.

A City refers to Montreal, where the playwright once lived. The four friends are based on friends of MacArthur – members of an actual indie theatre company in the city: Sidemart Theatrical Grocery. Humorous and swift with intersecting dialogue, the piece is a snapshot of a world that, for MacArthur, is gone. It's a collapse of a small civilization and a homage to a place in time that is now defined by the impreciseness of memories.

LaBeouf told his friends that colours are not real, and that the brain makes up colours to give the world shape. Spartanly staged in a square room with LED tube lighting on the floor that marks a performance area, A City took its own shape through documented stories, recorded text, confessional monologues and fictional writing. Verbatim theatre, then, with whimsy.

The four characters, who once shared an apartment, are Paddy (a possibly gay musician, played by Cole Alvis), Gemma (who knew LaBeouf better than the rest, played by Amy Keating), Graham (high-strung, perhaps hyperthyroid, jealous of LaBeouf, played by David Patrick Fleming) and Andrew (a name-dropping tall-drink-of-water who's been to Hollywood and who refers to Gerard Butler as "Jerry," played by Justin Goodhand).

Individually, all the actors' performances are up to snuff. Collectively they are believable as a once-close foursome, albeit with recollections that don't always match up. But that's the thing with memories. Some are embellished – the missing blanks filled up in flattering ways. (Some call them "alternative facts.")

Much of the dialogue has to do with a Halloween party. Gemma says she left the apartment window open after the party to clear out the smoke, and that she slept on the couch. But Graham says she passed out, was hung over from a bottle of tequila, and that because she stupidly left the window open his cat escaped.

All four, however, seem to agree on LaBeouf, who had dressed for the party up as King Tut, complete with gold body paint and an Egyptian death mask. And then he disappeared, with no one remembering him leave. All things must come to an end, be it friendships or a boy king or a golden era.

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A theory on the physiology of dying is put forward. The idea is that because the brain is not equipped for death, in its confusion it begins frantically searching for "real" things – the near-death moment in which experiences and people are flashed before our eyes.

That's not a bad way to die. But is it a good way to live? And what is real? In a thoughtful play that blurs fact and fiction, MacArthur asks questions.

A City continues to April 2

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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