Monday, April 16, 2018

Nervy Playmaker - Risky Phil - Play Review

Risky Phil - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Paula Wing, Directed by Stewart Arnott
Runs until April 27th 2018


"Risky" Phil is a cautious young black teen who lives with his hairdresser Aunt Gigi, who has a deal to play hockey and attend practice if he continues helping around his aunt's salon. The set up does not even hint at the ensuing drama, deftly handled by the delicate hands of Paula Wing, with touches of comedy and lots of heart, when teens Risky Phil and his best friend Jamie each encounter life changing decisions that affect their own family dynamics.

Phil's absent father, who Phil did not even know existed, shows up unannounced looking for his dead mother, Aunt Gigi does everything to protect Phil from his unreliable father who has just finished rehab and is trying to make amends. Phil's one outlet of escape, his hockey practice with his best friend Jamie, but while Phil is committed to hockey, Jamie is more interested in eating and hanging out, much to the chagrin of Jamie's father, who is also their coach David. Meanwhile, David has just landed an opportunity of a lifetime to play pro-hockey in Estonia, a decision which would mean leaving Jamie and divorcing his mother while David pursue's his life-long dream.


The parallel tracks of sons and absent fathers, one returning and one leaving, have heavy affects on the teen boys, still trying to navigate and understand the world they're in, but while Aunt Gigi is there, doling out advice that Phil doesn't particularly want to hear, she herself holds some secrets that will further affect her own relationship with Phil.

It's quite the risk for a young person's theatre to put on a play with such heavy themes but in the hands of Arnott, Wing and a terrific cast of five, Risky Phil the play feels heartfelt and is often funny (especially thanks to ace performances from Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Aunt Gigi and a very amusing Tal Shulman as Jamie). Brian Bisson as David and Jamie Robinson as Junior, Phil's biological father, each portray men whose selfish decisions ultimately affect their sons, but it's a testament to Bisson and Robinson that as frustrating these characters are, these fathers feel familiar and understandable in their own personal pursuits.

It's also nice to see a deliberate story of a black boy playing such a "Canadian" sport, and telling stories of his newly formed, if small and tight, family, played against Jamie and David's white family, and where race is integral to the story but not the crux of the drama. While the play had some pacing issues, despite some well choreographed scene changes, the stories of two different Canadian families  felt real and representative of families we see in the cities.

Finally, there's a terrific Daniel Ellis as Phil, who has the most dramatic heavy lifting, and keeps the centre of the play well balanced. Definitely not a cautious performance.

Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
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