Bang Bang by Kat Sandler opens up the 2019-20 season at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre at the Tom Hendry Warehouse, which is in its 50th season. This season is the last one conceived by artistic director emeritus Steven Schipper and the first executed by incoming artistic director Kelly Thornton and associate artistic director Audrey Dwyer.
The play centres around Lila Hines (Beverly Ndukwu), a rookie cop who shoots an unarmed black man by mistake. Tim Bernbaum (Tom Keenan), a playwright, descends on her living room after the success of his play Hands Up, inspired by her story. This “living-room play” combusts with energy as actor Jackie Savage (Sébastien Heins) and his bodyguard (Alex Poch-Goldin) crash Bernbaum’s attempted reconciliation with Hines and her mother (Warona Setshwaelo), with whom she lives.
Sandler’s gut-busting, trigger-happy script is a self-eviscerating dress-down of the supposedly woke theatre artist and the theatres that put him there, but in a way that doesn’t seem forced or vindictive. The play does lose a bit of energy at the end of the first act, but the intermission cuts at the perfect moment, driving into the stronger second act.
The performances of Ndukwu as Lila and Setshwaelo as her mother sometimes seem out of sync, compared to the more laugh-out-loud comedy of the other actors, but they ground the play in the everyday world, which bears the consequences of the art the other characters create.
Keenan, an actor whose bio is overflowing with RMTC productions, overshadows the more nuanced performances of Ndukwu and Setshwaelo in his annoyingly good-intentioned but ultimately insensitive Bernbaum. His earnest self-involvement shifts from laughter-inducing to a gratingly annoying portrayal, which eventually pays off in the second act.
Heins returns to the role of Savage in Bang Bang after he starred in the play at Factory Theatre in 2018, a production directed by Sandler. His performance does not get stale. More than once, he smoothly brings the entire play to a halt with talent and narcissism. Poch-Goldin, as his bodyguard Tony Cappello, elevates the role of the food-mooching former cop, rightfully earning some of the longer laughs from the audience.
Adam Parboosingh’s set design intensifies the action without being over the top and contextualizes the play as part of a larger world and a larger conversation.
The play is full of commentary on theatre and playwriting. Bang Bang positions itself as a living-room play, but its sharp dialogue prevents it from becoming heavy-handed or preachy. It acknowledges the tactics used to make the audience heavily complicit in the violence and cultural appropriation inherent in representations of police violence against Black people and how those stories are appropriated and celebrated by audiences.
Sandler is a talent not to be missed on the Winnipeg stage. Bang Bang is a contemporary, visceral and unflinching standout performance and a positive start to Thornton’s tenure as artistic director.