By James Karas
Category E is a play based on a great idea that has a strong beginning, an impressive and intriguing middle but unfortunately fails to find an equally powerful end.
Belinda Cornish’s play, now playing at the Coal Mine Theatre, opens with two people in hospital overalls in a cage. A third person, a perky young girl called Millet (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) arrives. She smiles nervously, tries to be friendly, seems apprehensive and we try to figure out what is going on.
The other occupants of the room are Corcoran (Robert Persichini) and Filigree played by Diana Bentley but referred to as “it” throughout the play. There are two cots in the cage and it has an open door leading to a corridor that the occupants use. In other words, the cage is real but it is not completely enclosed.
Corcoran is serious, commanding, gruff and sometimes sensible but we are not sure about him. He has a patch over one eye and his other eye is bloodshot. We find out that he is a scientist and is doing an acrostic puzzle that is seventeen years old.
Filigree fidgets, makes sudden moves and tries to strangle Millet for no compelling reason. We conclude that she is a psychopath. We are not sure what Millet is doing there as she goes between terror and attempts at friendly relations with the other occupants.
The three are ordered to go somewhere using codes and the numbers written on their backs instead of their names. At times they go to pick up their food, at other times they leave the cage for mysterious but unpleasant reasons.
This is not a mental hospital but some kind of research or testing centre of human behaviour and endurance. We follow the circuitous routine of life in the cage from storytelling, to listening to numerous commercials for health products, to spying on their neighbours through a grate in the wall. It is a frightful and mysterious existence.
Filigree has a large dressing on her back; Millet is fed disgusting food that Corcoran is trying to prevent her from eating; Corcoran’s other eye is removed. Filigree was raised without any parental love and she cannot make any connection with human beings although Corcoran does have some control over her. Is this a dehumanization centre or a testing lab of human endurance under barbaric conditions? Is this a different form of Dr Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz? For Christians, is this hell?
It may well be all of those things but who is the creator or controller of the place and its inhabitants? If it is hell, there is no Satan. Is it degraded human kind? Is this 1984 of Brave New World? Is it the world now or in the future? There is no answer that I could discern and that left me disconcerted. I wanted more information and more context. The people in the cage were left in a worse condition at the end of the play (I will not disclose more information) than at the beginning but I was left dissatisfied and in limbo.
I must recognize the superb performances of the three actors. Persichini’s Corcoran is mysterious and human. He is intelligent, strong and a victim but we do not realize his fate until the very end of the play. Bentley and Endicott-Douglas give highly impressive performances that convey the terror and mystery life in the cage. Rae Ellen Bodie gets full marks for outstanding direction. You can complain if you want but it is a play and performances that do not leave you.
Category E by Belinda Cornish continues until April 29, 2018 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, M4J 1N4. www.coalminetheatre.com