Arts Club Theatre Cipher

The Arts Club production of Cipher is in partnership with Calgary’s Vertigo Theatre, who commissioned this grand prize-winning play from the 2018 Alberta Playwriting Competition. The playwrights themselves, Ellen Close and Braden Griffiths, perform in this conspiracy thriller about breaking a code while breaking the mold of conventional mystery genres.

Ellen Close
[Ellen Close]

The plot of Cipher revolves around Dr. Grace Godard’s (Ellen Close) obsession with a fictional 63-year old cold case dubbed the “Beacon Hill Body.” The final words from a book of Persian quatrains (The Rubaiyat) were sewn into the jacket sleeves of a deceased man found on the beach near Beacon Hill Park.

Later, a copy of The Rubaiyat surfaces, containing the torn page and a complicated code scribbled inside. The cipher has never been solved and the body remains unidentified.

As a toxicology professor, Grace is convinced the victim was poisoned. Her quest gets an injection of new evidence and renewed urgency after she’s approached by Aqeel Saleemi, a young IT professional who believes he may be personally connected to the unknown man.

Praneet Akilla, Ellen Close
[Praneet Akilla, Ellen Close]

They engage in a torrid affair where Grace convinces Aqeel to employ semi-legal hacking techniques to decode the enigmatic cipher. Their tactics eventually trigger the ire of CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) and a cascade of consequences that entraps them both.

Directed by Craig Hall with dramaturgy by David Mesiha, Cipher is cast in a film noir style but dabbles in social commentary on racial profiling and pervasive surveillance.

For all the somber build-up, none of its topics, nor its cryptic title, yield a satisfying impact on stage. Have you ever ordered something off a menu that sounded mouthwatering but was ultimately underwhelmed with the dish?

Praneet Akilla, Ellen Close

Watching the climax unfold, I felt no resonance with the characters nor their pursuits. The machinations for decoding the cipher are slightly confusing too. Perhaps, as words on a page, the storyline may have been a more intriguing read.

Ellen Close’s portrayal of Grace is adequately bold and brusque while Praneet Akilla’s Aqeel is soft-spoken and vulnerable, but neither spark the relationship chemistry demanded by their roles. The other playwright, Braden Griffiths, provides some comic relief as the confident and slightly menacing Clive.

The silent roles, choreographed by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, and performed by Arash Khakpour as the Beacon Hill body and Delia Brett as his secret lover are more moving and mesmerizing than the dialogue. They expressively mime flashbacks and gracefully glide in a dance of shadows alongside the actors.

Arash Khakpour
[Arash Khakpour]

Narda McCarroll’s edgy, minimalist set of rotating panels is brought to life through high tech audio visuals and props under the astute management of Rick Rinder.

Parjad Sharifi teases lights and shadows patterned after film noir to provide an optimal backdrop for Jamie Nesbitt’s clever, picturesque projections. These combine with Torquil Campbell’s eerie mixture of digitized noises to convey a dramatic sense of time and place.

Nods go to Stephanie Kong for outfitting Grace with a parade of prêt-à-porter blazers so she can dash from between the sheets directly into her classroom.

Arash Khakpour, Delia Brett

By layering elements of dance, mime and social commentary, Vertigo Theatre’s Cipher is a brave attempt at reimagining the classic conspiracy thriller. Performances continue at the Granville Island Stage through March 7

Photos by David Cooper.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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