Nadia Verrucci takes the stage as Alice's mother
(Photo courtesy of Maxime Côté / sorstu.ca)

Billy howls into obscurity

a/Arts & Entertainment/Theatre by

There’s not much subtlety in Fabien Cloutier’s Governor General’s Award-nominated play Billy (The Days of Howling)—currently making its English language debut at Theatre La Chapelle—nor does that seem to be the playwright’s goal. Rather, Cloutier aims to explore the themes of delusion, judgement, and class relations, all of which he does successfully. Unfortunately, this comes at the price of having characters without any shade of nuance or features that distinguish them beyond their broad archetypal roles, and the cast isn’t able to provide it on its own.

This isn’t to say that seeing these archetypes interact with one another isn’t intriguing. The three-actor cast consists of a young, working class father (Davide Chiazzese), a slightly older middle class mother (Nadia Verrucci), and an older woman whose class is less clearly defined (Susan Glover). Other characters—including the titular Billy—are only alluded to, never seen. Although the relationships between the three are unclear at the beginning, details are revealed as the play progresses.

Cloutier’s method of revealing these facts—and the narrative which they shape—is fascinating, even if the drama itself ends up disappointing. For most of the play’s nearly 90-minute, intermission-less running time, all three characters deliver soliloquies that range from being thematically connected to acting more as alternate perspectives on the same situations.

The situation that gives the play its primary dramatic thrust centres around Billy’s father and the mother of Alice, another girl in Billy’s daycare. Billy’s father is an easygoing parent who’s content to let his son eat Cheetos and play video games, while Alice’s mother is an uptight matriarch who wouldn’t dream of letting her daughter near sugary cereal. She’s so disgusted by his appearance, hygiene, and class that she decides one morning to follow him. She’s even more appalled when her sleuthing leads to her witnessing him and his wife leave Billy in the car while they go into a fast food restaurant to have donuts and coffee.

Whatever good intentions she may have had are distorted by her obsession, to the point where her need to feel superior to the other parents surpasses her concern for their son. This is further buttressed when juxtaposed with the father’s similarly detail-obsessed soliloquy about a mixed martial arts fight, as well as the older woman’s fixation on a bulletin board that she hopes to have put up.

The sparse set, consisting entirely of stuffed animals, wooden boxes, and shovels, gives the opportunity for the conflicts to grab the viewer’s attention, but the characters—at the heart of them—are too flimsy to be engaging. Just as each of the characters judge each other based on superficial features, Cloutier appears to define them through their basic biographical details.

The father’s coarse language, passion for video games, and general lack of cultural awareness paint him as a working class Philistine figure. The mother’s concern for nutrition and pride in her intelligence portray her to be middle class. The older woman fits the ‘crazy cat lady’ stereotype thanks to her delusional belief in her connection with the hosts of her favourite radio show—where she refers to the men as “my boys.” The playwright tries to complicate his stereotypes somewhat through the use of a speech by the father in which he denounces impoverished people who take advantage of welfare. However, the speech mostly serves to highlight his ignorance, thus further propagating the insidious working class stereotypes presented in the drama.

The actors have not been given much material to work with, but their performances only serve to emphasize the clichés strewn throughout the play. Chiazzese’s portrayal feels closer to a sketch comedy rendition of a New York City cabdriver than a fully fledged human being. He’s funny, but his humour doesn’t help to create a compelling character. Verrucci’s performance is too intent on conveying the mother’s righteous fury to reveal anything else about her. Glover brings the most nuance of the bunch, but her character is too helpless to be interesting.

Rather than functioning as a character study, Billy (The Days of Howling) comes across more as a social experiment attempting to discover the results of the interactions between different cross sections of society. It might make for an interesting sociological study, but it fails to yield powerful drama.

Billy (The Days of Howling) runs until Oct. 25 at Theatre La Chapelle (3700 Saint Dominique) at 8 p.m. with an additional show being offered on Oct. 25 at 3 p.m. Student tickets are $28.50.