A caveat to the reader: Mike Czuba’s play I Am I appeals to a very particular taste. If you spent the entirety of Waiting for Godot wondering when the hell Godot was going to show up, you may not like this Montreal playwright’s anti-narrative aesthetic. But if words like “postmodern”, “self-referential”, and “meta-fictional” appeal to you, then Czuba’s playful portrait of sexual politics in the modern age is a must-see.
Put on by Czuba’s production company Dancing Monkey Theatre, it takes a while to sort out what is happening at the outset of I Am I. Actors Tristan D. Lalla and George Bekiaris play two facets of the same character, an unnamed Everyman plagued with insecurity and self-doubt. The characters represent the chaotic internal dialogue tearing apart this single man, and they argue and criticize each other relentlessly. Patricia McKenzie plays the attractive love interest Sonya who stubbornly resists the man’s advances. In a gesture of unexplained whimsy, lanky guitarist Tai Timbers controls the sound in plain view of the audience from atop a mound of fake strawberries.
“Someone out there has got a blog, this shit is going to be all over it tomorrow,” Sonya says at one point. Czuba’s script often refers to itself, probing its own nature as a work of art. The actors playfully pretend to have gone off script, and on two occasions consult disoriented audience members to guide them. “Go on,” McKenzie instructs someone in the front row. “Page 70, where are we?” “It’s… blank,” the confused young man responds uncertainly.
Czuba proves that romance, relationships, and even drama are all without an essential script. A writer clearly plagued with his share of existential angst, Czuba uses the uncertainties of dating as a jumping off point for greater philosophical dilemmas. “Why are we here?” the characters wonder at multiple reprises. “It’s all art, all of it!” Lalla’s character screams. “If I was gone, I would be revealed,” says Bekiaris’ character.
Couched within these opaque statements is a story. For some stretches of time, a narrative congeals before passing away again in favour of Czuba’s metaphysical deliberations. With such a deep philosophy embedded in the script, Czuba invests himself in his writing, almost painfully so. A graduate in playwriting from Concordia, Czuba will soon be pursuing an MFA in Calgary. He is not without recognition and won “Best Play” in The Mirror for his 2008 The Elusive. Larry Lamont directs I Am I, which he calls in the production notes “an enormously exciting and challenging script”.
Bekiaris is a noticeably less strong actor than the more experienced Lalla and McKenzie, who share an extensive history in film and theatre which is readily apparent. On occasion Lalla’s emotional eruptions border on grating – Czuba indiscriminately peppers these outbursts throughout the script of I Am I, and Lalla risks overplaying it at times. His character alternates between angry, despondent, and pathetically inept, while doppelganger Bekiaris plays the know-it-all voice of the human ego pushing Lalla around. It is a laughably true-to-life portrait of insecurity even as it is heartbreaking.
Czuba is an undeniably skilled playwright. At some points, I Am I is rough around the edges, but perhaps intentionally so. Czuba may still have some ground to cover before fully mastering the balance of such a complex and ambitious stylistic. But this is an artist worth keeping an eye on.
I AM I runs through July 24 at Players’ Theatre (3480 McTavish, 3rd Floor). Tickets are $20, $15 for students and seniors. For more information or for tickets, contact the Box Office at (514) 369-6954. See the I Am I trailer.