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Mystery thrillers — long a shivering staple of paperbacks and movies — have a surprising resonance on stage, when expertly executed. Here in Edmonton, some of the plays that stick with me still are of that genre, such as Trevor Schmidt’s We Had a Girl Before You (at Northern Light Theatre in 2022), Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth (at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre in 2019) and The Pillowman (at the Citadel by way of Martin McDonagh in 2006/07).
MOB (at Workshop West’s Gateway Theatre until Nov. 12) is one of those productions. It’s hard to shake long after you leave the theatre. I can’t say I enjoyed the play; it’s too unsettling for that. But it raises a host of questions that may contribute to slight nausea on the way home in the car.
MOB opens on Sophie (Kristin Johnston), who has lost her job in an undisclosed but clearly traumatic fashion. She arrives at a remote bed and breakfast with a small, white suitcase in hand (the set design by Beyata Hackborn is stark and shiny, with little to soften the hard edges of the play). The slightly infirm and elderly Louise (Davina Stewart) runs the inn with the help of her nephew Martin (Graham Mothersill).
The uneasy relationship between Louise and Martin has Psycho-like overtones (purely coincidental, says playwright Catherine-Anne Toupin in a 2020 interview with the Montreal Gazette, while admitting a devotion to Hitchcock). Louise and Martin are disturbing characters, off-kilter from the start in an “oh, I’m sure it will be fine” sort of way.
But it’s not fine. Not at all. It’s impossible to say more without giving away too much of the plot. But soon, the audience finds itself caught up in a dance between cat and mouse in which the power shifts between Martin and Sophie as stakes ratchet ever higher.
MOB was first written in French and debuted in Montreal in 2018. Later, Chris Campbell translated the one-act, which made a brief but heralded appearance at Centaur Theatre as the pandemic dawned. Workshop West’s production, directed by Heather Inglis, is MOB’s western Canadian premiere.
While the play displays a robust and sometimes excruciating physicality, it’s very much a head game that’s rooted in language. MOB poses questions about the use of words as weapons in the internet age, putting a lie to the old “stick and stones” mantra. Indeed, language destroys in MOB and the audience can feel its toxic grip from the early moments of the show, which see Sophie replaying snippets of dialogue through a sleepless night. Johnston plays those words like a jagged poem or song; they are sand in your eyes. A giant screen, broken into small, chessboard-like squares, consumes the back of the black-box stage and displays the tightly focused faces of Louise and Martin to tremendous effect at the beginning and end of the play. Lighting designer Alison Yanota’s flickering effect creates ongoing anxiety.
The characters are complex in MOB, particularly Martin. In a gripping portrayal by Mothersill, Martin is by turns child-like and threatening, seemingly confident while easily manipulated. He is the teenager back in high school that you thought might not make it. Sophie is wounded but gains ground as the production proceeds. Poor Louise, like the audience, hardly knows what to make of it all until the gut-busting conclusion of the play.
MOB poses many questions, but presents no answers. We see how people continue to hurt each other, using new technology to promulgate old hatreds. Behind it all is…why? Even Shakespeare struggled with that one. Perhaps a question for another day, another play.
MOB, presented by Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre, by Catherine-Anne Toupin, with translation by Chris Campbell
Director Heather Inglis
Featuring Kristin Johnston, Graham Mothersill, Davina Stewart
Where Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
When Until Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets Starting at $32 at workshopwest.org or by calling 780-477-5955