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The Test’s strange, stilted style makes an odd play even odder

2 out of 4 stars

Justin Bieber isn't the only one wondering: Who's your daddy? The men in Swiss-German playwright Lukas Barfüss's dark comedy The Test – having its English-language premiere thanks to Toronto's always exciting Company Theatre – undergo a series of paternity tests in order to figure out for certain who's fathered who.

Some involve swabs of saliva sent to laboratories, but most are tests of character, which these morally ambiguous fathers fail at every turn.

After Peter Korach (Gord Rand) begins to go mad with doubt that his son is his own, he secretly collects genetic samples to quell his concerns.

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When we first meet Peter, he has received the results and is describing – calmly, casually, in a jerky rhythm borrowed from Christopher Walken – how he is going to cut out his wife's lying tongue with a box cutter and then pluck out the eyes of the child he thought was his own.

Peter's father Simon Korach (Eric Peterson) listens to this madness and is unmoved. Running for political office for the fifth time, he encourages his son to put aside these bourgeois concerns and consider the big picture. "Society is splitting in two and the gap is widening every minute," he says, though the more we get to know slippery Simon, the more we realize his primary concern is sinking his feet into his daily foot baths on time.

Simon has a surrogate son as well as his biological one, the somewhat sociopathic Franzeck (Philip Riccio). After Simon discovered him in a drunken stupor on a park bench, he dried out and became his personal assistant.

But Franzeck increasingly wants to be a real Korach: He asks to be adopted by Simon and his health-nut wife, Helle (Sonja Smits), and pursues Peter's wounded wife Agnes (Liisa Repo-Martell) before their marriage is even cold.

Irish director Jason Byrne, who has had success with The Company Theatre twice before, is back for this production and he makes an odd play even odder. He has encouraged his actors to speak their dialogue as if they're discovering it line by line, sometimes word by word. It sounds almost improvised, but not at all naturalistic. Everything is strange and slightly stilted.

Characters float on and off the stage like ghosts, and often silently observe the action from chairs on the side of John Thompson's simple, severe set comprised of a couch, an egg-shaped chair and a kitchen counter, where a kettle is always boiling for Simon's footbaths. (The back wall is a large sheet of see-through plastic that hangs largely unexploited.)

The Korachs also seem clinically detached from the events of the play, whether from their own tumultuous emotions or the violence that eventually does occur. This is particularly the case with Helle, who returns from India partway through the play, but in Smits's spooky performance seems to remain in a different time zone than the rest of the characters.

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The distance Byrne creates between the action and the audience allows the vilest moments in the play to be the funniest – whether the calm consideration of a child's death or the description of a gruesome accident. (Richard Feren's soundscape ironically underscores most of the scenes with the faint tinkle of elevator music.)

Riccio's Franzeck, with his extreme lack of empathy and middle-distance stare, is the most fascinating creature on stage – his off-hand, cruel remarks frequently shocking the audience into laughter.

The style is striking, but it also wears thin, and fairly quickly. Since the characters don't care about each other or what's happening to them, it's difficult to care about them – the exception, perhaps, being Repo-Martell's guilt-racked Agnes.

As the central character Simon, Peterson's behaviour comes across as erratic, unrooted – he often seems to be playing around rather than playing a character. The Test provides plenty of squirms, but ultimately I found it unsatisfying.

The Test

  • Written by Lukas Barfüss
  • Directed by Jason Byrne
  • Starring Eric Peterson and Sonja Smits
  • The Company Theatre and Canadian Stage production
  • At the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto

The Test runs until Nov. 26.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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