CASIMIR AND CAROLINE
Written by Odon von Horvath
Adapted by Paolo Santalucia, Holger Syme, & The Howland Company
Based on an original translation by Holger Syme
Directed by Paolo Santalucia
Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie
Lighting design by Jareth Li
Original compositions by Evan MacKenzie
Sound design by Jeremy Hutton
Featuring: Alexander Crowther, Hallie Seline, Michael Ayres, Cameron Laurie, Caroline Toal, Shruti Kothari, Veronica Hortiguela, Kimwun Perehinec, James Graham, Michael Chiem
It is always a delight to be introduced to a playwright that you have known vaguely from afar but have never had the opportunity to meet up close and personal. Such is the case for me – and I would expect for many others as well – with the prolific Austro-Hungarian writer Odon von Horvath who I know mainly through the high praise of his contemporary, Stefan Zwieg. In “The World of Yesterday,” Zwieg’s autobiography, he called von Horvath “the greatest writer of his generation.”
So congratulations to the young Howland Company (established in 2013) and U of Toronto professor Holger Syme, for the updated translation and adaptation of this millennial angst play that surveys everything that could possibly go wrong at a company office party and does. Paolo Santalucia’s zippy and humorous staging of Casimir and Caroline is now playing at Crows Theatre in Toronto.
von Horvath (1901-1938) comes by his schadenfreude honestly. The fact that he has become one of the most produced playwrights across Europe over the past few years is because his plays speak about those young generations who got swept up by the fascist movements of their time that came to power throughout Europe in the 1930s and eventually culminated in the Second World War.
His last novel, “Youth Without God” (1937) has seen a number of updated, contemporary dramatic adaptations for stage and film linking the past with the present. The novel’s narrative (told from the voice of the teacher) is the story of a young high school teacher who tries to convince his German students that the propaganda they are hearing about white supremacy on the radio is a fabrication and that no race is inferior to another. Nevertheless, the students rat him out to the alt-right of their day.
Casimir and Caroline opens to the pulsating sounds of Hungarian csardas. Suddenly the entire cast is on stage dancing and clapping their hands. The up tempo rhythm of the csardas sets the time signature for the play itself with an occasional adagio here and there.
Welcome to the annual party for the company’s human resources department! This ratchets up the fun quite a bit. I mean come on, is there any employee anywhere who really looks forward to a visit from or a meeting with their human resources personnel generalist? How you answer that question may well account for how you view the characters in this play – likable or thoroughly reprehensible little strivers who’ve made their decision on how they intend to thrive in the unnamed company for which they work.
Well, here they all are together drinking and having fun (!) until we learn that one employee named Casimir (Alexander Crowther), who worked as a driver for the chauvinist, sexist manager of H.R. named Rankin (James Graham), has just been laid off. This state of affairs puts him in immediate conflict with his woman friend, Caroline (Hallie Seline) who is still gainfully employed. What did he do wrong that she did right? It’s just too much for his frail male ego to handle. And here begins a play that contains much venting of white male rage.
In the midst of all the male howling (except for the sweet understanding Michael Chiem as Trevor), it is the women in Syme’s adaptation who represent the more nuanced and interesting characters. Led by Kimwun Perehinec as Shira, who felt like Maleficient, mistress of evil incarnate, from her first entrance. At one time Shira was co-equal to Rankin in the company hierarchy, had an adulterous affair with him and has now been appointed – wait for it – CEO of the company. And apparently nobody from the head office even bothered to cc the email to Rankin!
Shruti Kothari as Ellie reminded me a bit of Cassius in Julius Caesar – she has a lean and hungry look and nothing gets by her cynical take on the proceedings. A perfect personality trait for the corporate world in which she intents to compete and thrive. In a nice pairing, her friend Mary (Veronica Hortiguela) is a shy and retiring sycophantic type who finally summons up the courage to approach Shira in a painful effort to network herself at the party when she has an opportunity. Shira’s short, brutal critique of Mary’s inept socializing skills is a lovely stage moment for the two of them.
Hallie Seline as Caroline keeps our attention throughout as is befitting for a titular character. Her interactions with two men, a compassionate man in the fashion department named Sanders (Michael Ayres) and her partner Casimir, who is at various turns sympathetic and at other times just pathetic, is a lovely stretch of emotions for her to play. Caroline Toal has the harder task of sticking by an abusive man named Frank (Cameron Laurie) to the point where we wonder why she stays with him at all.
The Howland Company acquits itself with great aplomb and I look forward to their next production. Holger Syme seems as though he might be just the perfect dramaturge for this group with his deep-dive expertise in European and German theatre. We haven’t seen any notable Brecht for a long time in Toronto. I’m wondering how a contemporary adaptation of St. Joan of the Stockyards might play in the current climate? Just sayin’.