Vertigo Theatre’s Cipher is worth it for the theatricality but not for the story

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At first glance, Vertigo Theatre’s Cipher seems to be focused on the unsolved murder mystery that drives the play. A body was found on the beach in Victoria, BC in 1958 and it was concluded that the victim was poisoned. But there are all sorts of clues that surround the case, but no one has been able to crack it in 68 years. As the plot unfolds, Cipher is about much more than this unsolved case. It’s about obsession, and Islamophobia and privilege. The production has been long overdue, as it was the first play that Vertigo Theatre had to cancel due to the pandemic, and this commission by local playwrights Ellen Close and Braden Griffiths is highly anticipated.
Cipher suffers from the classic new play of trying to do too much. It tries to cover too many themes under the guise of a mystery, but lacks the whodunnit feel. The narrative is more of a drama than a mystery, and this inherently is disappointing. But the production is gorgeous, the acting is so strong and the choreography is lovely. This play is a love letter to live theatre, as it is a beautiful play but the tension does not derive from the unsolved murder mystery.

The play centers on Dr Grace Godard (Ellen Close), a forensic toxicologist at the University of Victoria who is obsessed with the Beacon Hill Body, an unsolved murder case that saw the body with no identification, just a cipher sewn into clothing. It’s this case that connects her to Ameen (Antoine Yared) and they start a romantic relationship. As they delve deeper into the case, things become more complicated and soon Grace is visited by Clive (Stafford Perry) from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Things begin to spiral and Grace begins to question her relationships and what is fact or fiction.

This production also incorporates dancers Kaleb Tekeste and Tania Alvarado who depict the Beacon Hill Body and the nurse in the case. Whenever the case is referenced on stage, the dancers illustrate this part of the narrative. It’s a beautiful addition to the narrative and the choreography by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg is woven throughout the story.

Close’s performance is solid and she manages to show both the softer and harder sides of Grace’s personality, though the character would not be called warm in any way. Yared is so natural as Ameen, he is funny and charming. The chemistry between the two doesn’t sizzle, but is passable, which is also an important plot point. Perry plays the CSIS agent so well, leaving the audience questioning whether he is working for or against the main characters.

Narda McCarrol’s set design is beautiful and so fitting to the production. There are a series of swiveling panels on stage that stand as doors or windows and the dancers cast shadows onto. Cast members move beds and desks on stage to set up each scene. The set design contributes to the mystery surrounding the case that is communicated through the dancers on stage. McCarrol’s lighting design along with Torquil Campbell’s sound design and composition adds to the tension and theatricality of the production.

The challenge of Cipher is that the play doesn’t come to a conclusion. It just ends. Nothing really feels resolved and we don’t feel any closer to resolving the mystery. This feeling of disappointment rests on director Craig Hall’s shoulders, as he should have shaped the narrative to have a clear climax and denouement.

Vertigo Theatre’s production of Cipher has been long anticipated and is worth the wait for the theatrical production but not for the story.

Vertigo Theatre is running Cipher until February 13th. More information is available online.

Kaleb Tekeste and Tania Alvarado, photo by Tim Nguyen

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