At a time when theatrical productions seem destined to become more grandiose and effects-laden to compete with motion pictures and other modes of visual entertainment, it's rare that a high-profile production goes in the opposite direction--stripping itself of all but the bare essentials in order to spark the audience's imagination. Rarer still is an occasion where the effort is successful, but such is the case with Sean Dixon's The Gift of the Coat.
The play examines various facets of human nature, with the entirety of the play occurring as the aftermath of a public speaker named Rideau (Kevin James) giving a beggar, Ned (John Kirkpatrick), his coat. It's worth noting that the beggar begins the play immediately discovering that he has died and the coat (Kathleen Duborg) is suddenly able to speak. The pair venture out into the world, the beggar attempting to uncover the events that led to his death and the coat wanting to return to its former owner.
Writer Sean Dixon effectively develops a pair of narratives--one following Ned and the coat, the other featuring Rideau and another man--dovetailing them together at the end. The production's design team goes above and beyond: the set itself is merely a set of stairs and the rest of the play's aesthetic is left to the actors and the imagination of the audience. The inclusion of a few key costumes, props and an amazing lighting job by designer David Fraser completely transforms what could have been a handful of people fumbling around in the dark into something really affecting.
The cast is impeccable. The vast amount of time is spent with the Coat and Ned, but their journey is never tiring. Kathleen Duborg imbues an inanimate object simultaneously with poise and stature, while John Kirkpatrick fills the stage with manic energy and humour. The play likely wouldn't have worked with lesser actors, as the audience has connect with the actors in order to discover what's happening along with them. Kirkpatrick, in particular, has an amazing tirade midway through the play focused on the nature of beauty that is a sight to behold. Kevin James is great as Rideau, but Barden Griffiths stands out as his assistant, Wallace. The actors not involved in scenes also act as a sort of Greek chorus, becoming geese, lovers and Torontonians as the action dictates, aided only by costumes and props. While their use risked becoming hokey, it never even got close to coming across that way to the audience.
Aided by tremendous use of lighting, costumes and props and fueled by a cast of talented, energetic actors, the play's 90-minute runtime blows right by. The Gift of the Coat is a charming, surprisingly affecting look at human nature, where the audience examines why people are the way they are, joined by a dead beggar and a coat.
The Gift of the Coat runs until Sun., Mar. 9.