Winners and Losers is one of the best shows of the season
Created by Marcus Youssef and James Long. Directed by Chris Abraham. Produced by Theatre Replacement and Neworld Theatre, in association with Crow’s Theatre. At Gateway Theatre’s Studio B on Friday, November 23. Continues until December 1
I don’t want to give too much away, so how can I convince you to go see this one? Because you really should see this one. To maximize your pleasure in discovery, I’m going to have to resort to vague but enthusiastic adjectives. Winners and Losers is one of the most exciting, intelligent—and entertaining—shows you’ll see this season.
In it, Marcus Youssef and James Long sit at opposite ends of a long table and divide everything they can think of into winners and losers: farmers’ markets, lululemon, Pamela Anderson, the Occupy movement—and one another.
But they don’t just sit at the table. Under Chris Abraham’s direction (Abraham is the artistic director of Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre), the actors use space in ways that are sometimes so casual yet so minimalist that they carry the weight of ritual. They move the table out of the light at one point, for instance, and that action has all the portentous force of a Beethoven chord progression; you just know the gloves are coming off. There’s playfulness in the physicality, too. On opening night, during a competitive game, an audience member started keeping score.
Youssef and Long keep finding fresh ways to enrich their debate: they do short, snappy rounds of categorization; they tell extended stories; they let words fall away. Despite the air of improvisation, the evening is, in many ways, beautifully structured: one of the players avoids categorizing a loved one, but that loved one emerges later with damaging force.
The two artists seem prepared to talk about virtually anything. I don’t remember the last time I saw a guy talk publicly about his yearning for anal stimulation—other than in a letter to Dan Savage. Complex discussions emerge, especially about the Middle East and left-wing politics. Increasingly, the weighty considerations about race and class accrue; there’s a satisfying sense of increasing depth.
Throughout, there’s also a teasing tension. How much of Winners and Losers is scripted and how much are the performers winging it? I asked Youssef about this after the show and he answered me straightforwardly, but I’m not going to tell you what he said because I want you to have the fun of teetering along that tightrope yourself.
I will say, though, that the political gets brutally personal. A source close to the artists told me that, during the development phase, Youssef and Long reduced one another to tears as they debated whether they themselves are winners or losers.
That’s ironic because, in the play’s current state, the most personal section, which is also the script’s climactic movement, is its least successful. Repeating its basic points about class, this chunk gets overly explanatory, as if it’s searching for its centre. And, for the first time, the performers feel like they’re faking it, struggling to sustain the sense of spontaneity.
I’m sure the final movement will change and grow, though. Because Winners and Losers will get done a lot. Or at least it should. After all, it allows two of the finest experimental artists in Vancouver to engage in a very fine experiment.