Everyone Robert loves has a terrible fate befall them. No, literally. In Cliff Cardinal’s new one-man, 80-minute show at VideoCabaret (produced in association with Crow’s Theatre), Robert’s long list of potential lovers and friends meet a variety of horrific ends as soon as he declares his devotion. Horse-crushed windpipes, overdoses, career-ending amputations, and heart attacks are just some of the fates awaiting everyone Robert cares about. Easier, then, he decides, to care for nobody and nothing.
In (Everyone I Love Has) A Terrible Fate (Befall Them), Cardinal spins an absurdist tale of self-acceptance singed with cigarette butts, a cocaine-fueled fever dream with an acid wit that sometimes has a difficult time keeping up with its own relentless ideas.
Director and dramaturg Karin Randoja gives us a nifty triptych of a space for the rangy Cardinal to work his weird magic. JB Nelles’ set features three panels, half-tapestry and half-tattoo, bursting with life (or death); they feature the words “LOVE,” “CURSED,” and “FATE,” with designs of a heart held in a pair of hands, another pierced by a sword, and a body struck by lightning.
Each panel has a corresponding chair that conveys a different emotion; there’s a wooden chair to the left draped with a floral hand towel, the slightly askew pantry behind it making it feel like a dated but well-loved home where the contents could topple at any moment. A wicker chair to the right with a probably hand-knit blanket in a 1970s colour scheme draped over it could either be a comfort object or décor in a seedy drug den.
Robert spends most of his time on the middle seat, a reclining chair that’s either for a gamer or ripped out of the front seat of a car; it’s controllable to his whims, but gray, cold, personality-free. Lighting designer Raha Javanfar’s specific spotlighting makes the most out of the tapestries’ symbolism, causing them to glow and pulse with life at opportune moments.
The delight of Cardinal’s monologue lies in the offbeat, jagged imagery it creates. The world he creates is close to our own but as slightly askew as the shelves behind him; asteroids crash into the earth, a critically endangered white rhino leads a support group (wait for the glorious prop), and the universe abounds with the potential for dark magic. These touches of the fantastical make the show more interesting than it would be if it was just a character study of a man whose fear of connection leads to toxicity. They’re exciting, and I found myself wishing that Cardinal would lean into the unusual more strongly in the first half of the show, so that there’s more cohesive world-building when we as the audience are first making sense of the world the play inhabits.
(Everyone I Love Has) A Terrible Fate (Befall Them)’s unique spin on our universe is both its strength and hindrance; when it succeeds, it feels new and different, but when the quirks simply exist rather than serving a thematic purpose, it feels like the play is throwing a bunch of images at the wall to see what sticks.
Cardinal, similarly, throws himself into the character with aplomb, sneeringly daring us to take everything he says at face value, while talking as fast as possible. Robert hopes that we hate him enough to make it through the show with our lives intact. He offers no sympathy to others, deflecting it at every turn. To be fair, he also asks for no sympathy, either from the audience or from himself; it’s implied that if he ever dares to love himself he’ll disappear as quickly and brutally as everyone else.
As the run continues, Cardinal’s eager storytelling will likely settle down; for the moment, the performance is a bit rushed, causing a number of stumbles, stops, and starts as Cardinal sometimes trips over the twisting, elaborate language in his script. This may be partially due to a mismatch between Cardinal’s down-to-earth stage presence and the tone of the writing, which contains more writerly flourish than natural speech. It’s a conflict that fits in the characterization, as Robert’s desperation to connect with the audience wars with his arch attempt to keep us at bay, but one that’s too messy to work as a performance quirk. His deliberate address to the audience, laced with antagonism, works more effectively to keep us on our toes and at arm’s length.
When Robert slips up and makes a genuine audience connection, however, it zings and stings; for example, when he talks about his tumultuous relationship with his mother and his fear for her safety, later echoed in his tentative, worried interactions with the child of one of his girlfriends, and his eventual sudden, desperate desire to be a father.
“Maybe if I hate her enough,” he says of the woman who raised him, “she’ll live forever.”
(Everyone I Love Has) A Terrible Fate (Befall Them) runs at VideoCabaret (10 Busy St.) until November 12. Tickets are available here.
Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.