Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region  

Building the Wall at the Gladstone Theatre
Photo Andrew Alexander

Building The Wall, written by  Robert Shenkkan.

The swift march of folly can be the enemy of political theatre; by the time a playwright responds to events and a play reaches the stage, the world has moved on. Not so with Building The Wall by Robert Schenkkan. If you’ve had more than your dose of Trump inspired hilarity as served up by late night television, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre has the antidote. Lights up on grave misgivings. Walls actually come tumbling down in this production.

The walls of decency, compassion, and respect for humankind are deconstructed at an alarming pace as Rick, played by the eminently watchable Brad Long, the passive architect of a mysterious crime, is interrogated by Cassandra Mentor’s  determined Gloria, a woman who easily could have been his victim.

It isn’t difficult while listening to her detailed interrogation to get flashes of other crimes against humanity. Schenkkan is taking us through a playbook of sorts as evil emerges from troublesome details.  Hitler’s minions weren’t men who philosophized their way to the gas chambers, they were problem solvers, and in Building The Wall, if you’ve got an over supply problem, well, Rick is your guy. Patiently enduring Gloria’s inquisition – standing at the edge of his self-made precipice – Rick gradually reveals his logistical nightmare. No, he’s not a sadist. He just wanted to help people! It was an impossible situation and he did, well, he did his best to solve a problem not of his making.

A warning, a call to action, or just a reminder to pay attention, Building The Wall is a slide down the sticky slope of prevarication into the company of the morally inept. Which isn’t to say the script, admittedly written in a fever by its author who was desperate to communicate his warning, is perfect. Gloria is a bit of a cipher. We learn little about her or what motivates her to seek Rick out after he is found guilty. The typical social historian’s thesis of, ‘we want to understand what happened so it never happens again’, seems a bit flaccid, though in fairness that may be the author’s intention. But, she seems oddly obsessed with the chronology of Rick’s actions, which surely would have been clearly articulated during his trial. And is it really plausible – given that cell phones are practically a body part – that it took so long before evidence of unfolding horrors ‘went viral’? (Up until that revelation, I assumed that Rick’s superiors in this dystopian future had either found a way to circumvent the internet or effectively quashed any rumours of unpalatable goings on; the final triumph of fake news being that no one believes, or cares, about anything.)


But we’re not there – yet – and the success of Schenkkan’s play is that it makes the disintegration of a once powerful democracy perfectly plausible. Behind all the buffoonery there is a cold and serious logic at work; it is the crimes taking place right now, the ones we don’t hear about that will someday come back to haunt us. As we ask ourselves ‘how did it come to this’, we need also ask if we have in this present moment a complete picture of what ‘this’ is? Preparing the way for Rick and his minions, born amid the simmering resentments and prejudices that elected the ‘man-child’, what rough beast is slouching toward Washington?  Schenkkan does arrest laughter.

The performances of Brad Long and Cassandre Mentor are heart felt – it takes a measure of courage to inhabit such characters. Sean Devine’s directing maintains a suitably restrained pace, David Magladry’s set and lighting illuminates a well-earned purgatory, a dreary way station between crime and punishment, and Kyle Ahiuwalia’s sound punctuations remind us that Rick too may be on a treadmill toward darkness.

Building The Wall is a reminder that while the election of a buffoon may be a source of endless late night humour, it is no joke.

Written by Robert Schenkkan. Produced by Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Theatre

Featuring performances by Brad Long and Cassandre Mentor

Directed by Sean Devine

Set & Lighting Design by David Magladry

Sound Design by Kyle Ahluwalia