June 22, 2018

Cherry Docs — These Boots Are Made for Kicking


With only four more performances and stunning portrayals,“Cherry Docs” is well worth 90 minutes of your time.

Cherry Docs, a one-act play currently in a limited run at the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, is about what happens when a Jewish attorney is asked by Legal Aid to defend a Neo-Nazi skinhead.

This play, written by Canadian David Gow, is arguably the most successful play in Canada’s history, having been performed to glowing reviews from Toronto to New York, London, Jerusalem, Berlin, Krakow and Tel Aviv—in more than 100 independent productions around the world.

In a blunt sense, Cherry Docs is an intense play about differences, similarities and racism. It is also about forgiveness and what happens otherwise. Two characters, each with a different moral compass, are on a global journey in society that informs each other about the possibilities of redemption and epiphany.

The plot is simple: Danny Dunkel, a Jewish liberal public defender (Alan Blumenfeld), is asked to represent Mike (Mark Cecil), a neo-Nazi skinhead, accused of murder by kicking an immigrant man to death.

The assault took place when Mike, very drunk and on his way home from a concert by “H-U-R-C” (Holy Useful Racial Cleansing), spied an Asian man working at a fast food restaurant. Mike’s resentment, festering over his own lack of employment, exploded into a vicious attack on the man.

The initial irony is that the justice system has brought Danny and Mike together, a circumstance that forces them to examine their ethics, justify their actions and question their beliefs. Both men are equally challenged to look outside their own existence for answers.

The play’s title comes from the nickname for red Doc Marten’s, i.e., boots that Mike favors, as the “recognized uniform” of skinheads. The boots are shiny, steel-toed and well made, in Mike’s case, for kicking.

Written in 1998, the play was “inspired by a beating suffered by a gay friend of the playwright, a classmate at Concordia University in Montreal,” Gow explains. “He showed up one day with a huge bruise all around his eyes. He told me he had been kicked in the face while sitting outside on the steps outside a gay bar.”

During scenes of the play, both characters learn and grow and change in predictable and unpredictable ways. But this piece is not just about conflict and redemption between two men. It is about racial conflict and ethics on a global scale. What do you believe in? And why?

According to Gow, Cherry Docs is not “just about what happens in a room; it is about what happens when we do not leave the room, and try to build an understanding of ‘the other.’”

The two men interact and face off on opposing sides, often at odds over who is in charge, who has the right of way, and who claims the power at any given moment. Like a tightly fought chess match, the two men take turns and ponder how best to forward their own agendas, questioning if these agendas are worthwhile, even when those agendas are transformed and no longer recognizable from the original.

In an early scene, Danny, the attorney, classifies his background, making it clear that he is one of Mike’s hated “others”: “I am a mixed English, Scottish, Belgian Jew. Hey, I work out at the Jewish Y.”

Mike’s hair-trigger anger makes him anxious, restless, impatient and threatening at first. "In an ideal world, I'd see you eliminated," he says, "but here, I need you more than anything.”

Mike needs Danny to defend him and Danny uses Mike as a last-ditch effort to re-establish his legal reputation.

In a brilliantly written monologue Mike, holds forth about the Eastern art of reflexology: “The foot is extremely sensitive. . .the foot is a pathway to the rest of the body. . .the foot supports the body. . .feet are like the white male in society. Doc Martens are the perfect boot, the perfect line of footwear. The steel toe in a boot, now THAT is a weapon!”

Of the two actors, Cecil gives a more controlled performance, rising from soft to heated to nearly screaming. At times psychotic; at other times, gentle and sympathetic inside his containment. As a replacement for taking his charter in the direction of a tough stereotypical skinhead (as in the film American History X), Cecil turns in a rounded, complex portrayal, keeping in and holding the reins firmly, even when he explodes in anger and sadness. One significant moment in the play seems to stop time when both men stand still, bathed in stage light against the night’s darkness, and breathe heavily in rage.

Perhaps due to the nature of his character, Blumenfeld’s performance seems angry and frustrated, a little subtlety might have given Danny a keener emotional quality and resonance, a lower fidelity.

However, in Cherry Docs, Danny is struggling with his own sense of right and wrong, his own demons, so perhaps the limited tonality is warranted. The tension and interplay between the two men could have been improved and intensified had Blumenfeld explored the lower register of his character’s emotions. However, both performances overall are stunning and ring true to form.

In the small amphitheater, the set is sparse: metal chairs, a plain table, a pitcher of water, the rocks surrounding the small Mark Taper stage standing in as cell bed and walls. On either side of the stage are large black banners with white letters, with the biblical names Michael and Daniel, for whom the play’s characters are named. Michael, “thought to have fallen, been bound to the devil and later released,” and Daniel, thrown into the lion’s den, emerging unharmed.”

A few lines by Patricia Smith from her poem entitled, “Skinhead” brings forth the mindset of Mike:

They call me skinhead, and I got my own beauty.

It is knife-scrawled across my back in sore, jagged letters,

it’s in the way my eyes snap away from the obvious.

I sit in my dim matchbox,

on the edge of a bed tousled with my ragged smell,

slide razors across my hair,

count how many ways

I can bring blood closer to the surface of my skin.

These are the duties of the righteous,

the ways of the anointed.

Cherry Docs is a must-see play, with muscular dialogue, potent language, difficult ethical topics and much food for thought. As the playwright says, “Finding a way to remain in the encounter, to become peaceful or even to remain un-warlike seems a major challenge for us humans.”

A moderated panel discussion takes place after each performance. Pamphlets detailing this thought-provoking performance are available outside the theater. Because of its plot and the core foundation of the play, the Theatricum offers two hours of CLE (Certificate of Legal Education) credit for attorneys who attend the performance and stay for the panel discussion. CLE credit forms are available onsite.

The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum S Mark Taper Foundation Pavilion is located at 1419 N Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga CA 90290 (midway between PCH and the Ventura Freeway). For more information: (310) 455-3723; wwwtheatricum.com. Tickets: $20. Four performances remain at 8 p.m., on two Thursdays: September 20, 27 and two Saturdays: Oct. 6, 14.

Please refer to related interview with playwright David Gow.