By Ellen Close and Braden Griffiths. Directed by Craig Hall. A Vertigo Theatre and Arts Club Theatre Company presentation. At the Granville Island Stage on Wednesday, February 12. Continues until March 7
The tagline for Cipher reads “hipster noir meets conspiracy thriller,” and though that’s partly accurate, it’s also either willfully facile or a purposeful misdirection. The play is taut and suspenseful, sexy and funny; it’s also a searing confrontation of the consequences of Islamophobia, racism, profiling, white privilege, and inherent bias. Playwrights and actors Ellen Close and Braden Griffiths have crafted something very special and thoroughly contemporary.
Dr. Grace Godard (Close) is a 34-year-old tenured professor and expert in forensic toxicology who has spent the last 10 years researching a 63-year-old cold case known as the Beacon Hill Body. When 23-year-old computer programmer Aqeel Saleemi (Praneet Akilla) approaches her after class, wanting to know more about the case, they flirt and trade information. Aqeel believes he has a personal connection to the Beacon Hill Body, and Grace can’t help but be intrigued. Believing that a cipher found on the dead man might prove he was a spy, the two grow more obsessed with the case and with each other. But when their sleuthing goes too far, they end up as targets themselves, thanks to Clive (Griffiths), a fast-talking CSIS agent who’s convinced something sinister is happening.
Cipher contains literally coded messages, but it also deals in coded language—Grace repeatedly asks Aqeel, who’s Muslim, “You’re not that religious, are you?”—and there’s a kind of shadow cast, too. These are three actor-dancers primarily tasked with mastering beautiful movements from choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, conveying the silent lives of the Beacon Hill Body, his possible lover, and a secret agent. These dance sequences are frequent, and sometimes too long, but they’re scored beautifully by sound designer and composer Torquil Campbell.
Cipher’s whole cast is great—especially playwrights Close and Griffiths, who do double-duty as actors—but the standout is Akilla and his nuanced performance as Aqeel. He’s charming and warm, funny and electric, and he has a deeply grounded approach to portraying trauma, anger, and heartbreak. He and Close also have excellent chemistry, and their relationship is wholly believable. But it’s Akilla’s acting style that proves particularly compelling; it’s utterly natural, and every movement and reaction feels alive and organic. It’s a brilliant performance in a smart new play, and there’s nothing secret or coded about that.