Manitoba·REVIEW

RMTC Warehouse offers fiercely funny Seminar

The Royal MTC Warehouse opens its season with Seminar, a biting, cynical dark comedy. Which is also extremely, sharply funny.

Vicious writing class makes for cringeworthy laughs in Theresa Rebeck’s dark comedy

Tom McCamus is devastatingly good as acid-tongued writer Leonard in the Royal MTC's Seminar. (Dylan Hewlett)

"Writers in their natural state are about as civilized as feral cats."

That biting line is uttered by the viciously acid-tongued writer Leonard (Tom McCamus) near the beginning of Theresa Rebeck's dark comedy Seminar. And it's a cynical sentiment borne out over the course of its 100 minutes. 

Which doesn't stop Seminar from also being extremely, sharply funny.

The 2011 play — opening the Royal MTC's Warehouse season in a co-production with Toronto's Mirvish Productions — begins with the veneer of civility. A group of young aspiring writers have pooled together a huge sum of money to enlist Leonard for a series of writing seminars. 

The cast of Seminar, now running at the Royal MTC's Warehouse. (Dylan Hewlett)
He's a writer of some renown, but long past his best years. And he proves to be a bluntly cruel mentor, digging as savagely at the psyches of his students as he does at their writing.

It becomes an interesting exploration of the notion of truth. How much is too much, is honesty necessarily brutal, and who here is honest with each other, or themselves?

There are also provocative questions around power and gender politics here. Rebeck doesn't let any of her characters off easy — they all, in some respect, prostitute themselves throughout the course of the play, and it's safe to say that no one leaves this Seminar looking particularly heroic.

At the same time as it's filled with uncomfortable moral ambiguities, Seminar is also consistently entertaining. Rebeck has a knack for smart dialogue and writing scathing one-liners, producing moments that are simultaneously cringeworthy and laugh-out-loud funny.

Ryan James Miller as Douglas and Andrea Houssin as Kate in Seminar. (Dylan Hewlett)
Director Stewart Arnott's snappy production is buoyed by a quintet of strong performances. Rebeck makes her characters distinct and layered, giving us just enough of a glimpse into each as their story unfolds.

McCamus gives a devastatingly good performance as the viciously blunt writing teacher. He spits out his venomous attacks with a weirdly graceful ease and superb comic timing. 

He also fully mines some fantastically meaty writing given to him by Rebeck. A monologue he delivers about the awful realities of being a "successful" writer builds note-perfectly to an arresting climax.

And McCamus is backed by solid work from the four young actors who play his students. Ryan James Miller finds an appealing vulnerability in the pompous but gifted Douglas. 

Nathan Howe as Martin and Grace Lynn Kung as Izzy in Seminar. (Dylan Hewlett)
As his foil Martin, Nathan Howe delivers an intensely focused performance. Andrea Houssin's Kate is the character with the play's most perplexing and frustrating journey, but Houssin plays the turns believably. 

Izzy is the character least fleshed-out in the play — perhaps because she seems the most aware of who she is — but Grace Lynn Kung gives an energetic and playful performance in the role.

It all builds to an ending that I won't spoil, but will say I didn't find completely satisfying. And yes, it is a bit like watching feral cats turn on each other.  

But what's most surprising, and rewarding, about Seminar is just how entertaining that proves to be.

Seminar runs at the Royal MTC's Tom Hendry Warehouse until Nov. 7.

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