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February 16, 2017: “At Home at the Zoo” at the Carleton Tavern; Chamber Theatre Hintonburg’s most recent success.

February 16, 2017: “At Home at the Zoo” at the Carleton Tavern;
Chamber Theatre Hintonburg’s most recent success.

By Allyson Domanski.

With no stage and no set except for big black cubes to serve as seats for three actors, the Chamber Theatre Hintonburg (CTH) team of Donnie Laflamme and Lisa Zanyk have pulled off another coup.

Once again, they’ve made great theatre accessible to ordinary folk who might otherwise not see it. In their tradition of bringing fine plays to where people already gather, Laflamme and Zanyk match text to venue and make it as easy as possible for people to engage in art and not have to go out of their way for it.

Pull up a chair to a corner of the Carleton Tavern, order a brew and be blown away by powerful acting. The gripping dialogue in CTH’s latest Ottawa premiere, “At Home at the Zoo”, has grit befitting the Carleton’s 1930s oak-walled and hops-perfumed interior. This is ‘must-see’ material.

How can you go wrong with engrossing entertainment at twenty bucks a pop? Seven bucks for a pint or five for vino and six for the soup and sandwich special? What’s not to like?

Take it from my pub-loving friends. “This is excellent theatre,” said one, “better than what the bigger guys put on around the corner. Who needs fancy?”

“I was riveted,” said another. “Imagine. A standing ovation in a bar? That’s how good this is.”

“At Home at the Zoo” is a two-act play penned by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Edward Albee, of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? fame. The Zoo Story was the first play Albee wrote in 1958. It brought him instant acclaim. In 2004, he wrote its prequel, “Homelife” to flesh out Zoo Story’s central character Peter (played impeccably by Louis Lemire).

Act I peers into Peter’s usually tranquil home life during an oddly intense exchange with his wife Ann (nicely done by Jennifer Ford). Even a staid textbook publisher will lift his nose from a book when the wife announces, “We should talk.”

Act II unfolds outside the Central Park Zoo where an even odder, more intense exchange pits unsuspecting Peter against a loose cannon named Jerry (wunderkind Matt Smith in a virtuoso performance). Events culminate with the unthinkable, not only for mild-mannered Peter but also for the rest of us, who witness what we hope never to experience in a bar.

Lemire, a retired public servant and former Justice Department lawyer whose dramatic training can only have come from courtrooms, is superb in rendering Peter. Diminutive, balding and, for this role, bespectacled, Lemire’s outward appearance of dweeb belies the powerhouse within. He conjures the part with vein-popping force. That’s what preparing for a role since last September gets you.

Amidst the ‘pleasant journey’ of their marriage, Ford tackles Ann’s notions of breastless-ness and circumcisions going awry with aplomb. But when their sex life comes into play, Ford gives her all and smacks life into the role.

Then there’s Smith. Wow. As crazy goes, the Royal Ottawa would commit his Jerry. Wild-eyed, fanatical and as penetrating as the midday sun, his take on nutbar reminded me of Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest, only more self-destructive. His delivery, which silenced even the ice machine, is all the more improbable when at play’s end you meet the soft-spoken man in a tuque.

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Photo Caption: Louis Lemire (left) as Peter and Matt Smith (right) as Jerry in a scene from “A Home at the Zoo” by Edward Albee played at the Carleton Tavern until February 11th. Photo by A. Domanski.
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