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article imageReview: ‘Das Ding’ hits Toronto with eccentric take on globalization Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Apr 16, 2016 in Entertainment
Toronto - If you’ve always wanted to see a play about a large, sentient cotton ball that travels around the world and observes how people’s behaviour interconnects through modern technology and economics, German playwright Philipp Löhle has you covered.
It’s a small world these days, with everybody and everything linked so tightly that it’s impossible to do anything without making a ripple effect somewhere. That’s the apparent point of Löhle’s very strange 2011 comedy, Das Ding (The Thing), which had its North American premiere at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre on Thursday, translated by Birgit Schreyer Duarte. But will most audience members pick that globalization message up from Theatre Smash’s production? Ashlie Corcoron’s direction is full of whimsy and technical flair, and the show’s certainly great to look at, but the breakneck pacing and rapid switches between storylines may leave some viewers cold, if not confused.
It’s hard to summarize this play succinctly, although it runs less than 90 minutes. Imagine a multi-plotted Robert Altman movie, but set in multiple international locations, and throw in a sort of “six degrees of separation” theme. Then dominate a third of the stage with an enormous round structure, The Thing, a skeletal framework on wheels and covered in white sheets, which eventually opens up and transforms into a smaller set as needed. Several interlocking narratives occur around The Thing, which is meant to symbolize... something. Globalization? Human connection? God? Cotton?
The most interesting of the stories by far involves a teenager, Patrick (Philip Nozuka), who wanted to be a soccer player, but becomes an accidental photography sensation after a random snap he took of his sister’s bedroom goes viral and tours international art exhibitions. “Everybody recognizes their own childhood in it,” he says about the photo, and a series of media interviewers in different countries try to convince him against his better judgement that the picture is profound and full of “magic.” (Naomi Wright plays all the interviewers, imbuing them with a pretentious over-enthusiasm that’s quite funny.)
Patrick’s sister, Katherine (Lisa Karen Cox), also becomes an Internet star, but in a seedier way. Dissatisfied with her marriage to recycling-company owner Thomas (Kristopher Bowman), she begins allowing a neighbour to film her masturbating through the bathroom window and to post it online. This gets the attention of a Chinese entrepreneur, Li (Qasim Khan), who falls for her and pursues her. Other stories involve Li’s startup businesses with partner Wang (Bowman again) and another business partnership between an aid worker (Khan again) and an African farmer (Wright again). There’s also an amusing prologue about explorer Ferdinand Magellan (Wright) trying unsuccessfully to convince the Portuguese king (Khan) about an alternate route to east Asia – showing that global expansion hasn’t always been so easy.
Through all this, The Thing moves around the world to observe and note these developments and their connections, almost like a flying Rod Serling. The cast takes turns narrating its reactions and commentaries — “The Thing is confused!” “The Thing has a mission!” “Something happens to The Thing!” and so on. It’s so repetitive and catchy that you can’t stop yourself from mimicking it to your friends when you leave the theatre afterwards.
Whether the satire and social commentary of Das Ding hits you or not, Corcoron’s production is still a visual feast, thanks largely to set designer Drew Facey and projection designer Denyse Karn. The latter transports the audience to different settings by screening simple sketches of skylines, clouds, text and more on the back brick wall, while The Thing itself is a complex contraption with a few surprises, including a hidden TV monitor that becomes a fish tank in Li’s and Wang’s office.
Of the five actors, Wright comes off best in her multiple roles, but Nozuka is also quietly effective as the soft-spoken, baffled Patrick, unable to fathom why everybody’s reading so much into a photo he took with no effort or plan. Khan is amusing too, adding a catty flavour to his King Manoel I and quirky high energy to his other characters. Only Cox and Bowman are a little disappointing in the Katherine-Thomas bits, lacking a convincing connection between them – unless, of course, that’s supposed to be the point.
Does Das Ding actually work? I’m still struggling to figure that out. There’s no slow or dull moment in the way Corcoron stages it, with The Thing and actors and sheets and volleyballs and T-shirts and more flying all over the stage every minute. But it might be a case of rampant energy and visual flair trying to distract from a script that’s not as clever or coherent as it thinks it is. Or maybe Löhle’s ideas and humour just don’t translate perfectly. Or perhaps there are hidden layers that you don’t necessarily pick up on one viewing.
Whatever The Thing means to you, if anything at all, it’s a fun and weird ride. The Thing may confuse you, even irritate you, but The Thing will not bore you.
Das Ding (The Thing) runs at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre until May 1.
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