Coal Mine Theatre presents Annie Baker‘s The Antipodes, a whirlwind of thematic, referential extravagance. It’s a play that is both fancifully abstract and intensely specific. It feels cosmic and archetypal yet grounded by very mundane circumstances. Its characters are the makers of stories, indulging themselves and us in a gleefully cynical, hilarious, eerie celebration of narrative.
We are trapped in a conference room that tries hard to be warmly stylish, but can’t quite hide its dismal purpose. A modern-chic lighting fixture hangs incongruously surrounded by standard office fluorescents. Mirrored wall panels converge up centre stage, drawing you in, the narrow venue making this magnetic pull distinctly unnerving. Nick Blais’ clever set conveys a striking duality—that this space is both mythic and utilitarian.
Gathered around a large table, our characters are engaged in a brainstorming session. They discuss monsters. Terms and descriptions are thrown energetically into the charged air—gorgon, chimera, manticore. We don’t understand the full context of this writers’ room. Palpable, though, is their idolization of charismatic show runner, Sandy (Ari Cohen). We understand he has had some big hits—television series? movies? games?—and the pressure is high. The executives—never seen, keenly felt—are expectant and demanding.
In this rag-tag group of regulars and newbies, there are work-a-day issues that resonant—petty rivalries and mutual support, suspicion and camaraderie. Prosaic issues—payroll problems, deadlines and “diversity hires”—gradually give way to more primordial tensions as their situation becomes increasingly allegorical.
The ensemble cast—Simon Bracken, Joshua Browne, Sarah Dodd, Colin A. Doyle, Murray Furrow, Joseph Zita, Nadeem Phillip and Kelsey Verzott—has an electric, thrilling dynamic. At Sandy’s prompts, they share personal anecdotes, theories about time and space and unpack the phenomenon of stories. Their tales of first sexual experiences and grotesque body horrors are hilarious and riveting; from them, iconic tropes and archetypes emerge.
Scene transitions are fluid and indistinct. It takes a moment for the passage of time to register. Even the outside world—with lovers getting sick, co-workers going missing and a storm raging outside—feels both eerily removed and a very acute threat.
Director Ted Dykstra’s production captures the naturalistic rhythm of individuals immersed in a group dynamic. The intense emotional and aesthetic shifts feel organic, and the overall experience is urgent and visceral. This is a familiar world of banter, gossip and lunch breaks, but you sense society could very well be collapsing just out of our line of sight.
While the first hour and a half held me spellbound, the very protracted “first story ever told” monologue did strain my patience. As my attention began to drift, it felt as if the playwright was testing me, challenging me to stay with her or mentally abandon ship.
I stayed. And was rewarded.
Baker captures that essential human need to re-tell, embroider and formalize our experiences to be consumed and scrutinized. The understated, haunting finale feels abrupt and leaves you adrift in a sea of your own interpretive imagination.