Morris Panych | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Morris Panych

Panych came to public attention for his two-hander (a play for two actors) Last Call: A Post-Nuclear Cabaret (1982), which he wrote and in which he starred. The show was revised for CBC television, bringing Panych to national attention.
Panych, Morris
Actor, director and playwright, Morris Panych (courtesy Arts Club Theatre Company).

Morris Panych

Morris Panych, playwright, director, actor (b at Calgary, Alta 30 Jun 1952). Morris Panych has twice been the recipient of the Governor General's Literary Award for Drama (in 1994, and again in 2004 for Girl in the Goldfish Bowl) and has emerged as a major figure in Canadian theatre. He is a driving force in the Vancouver and Toronto theatre communities.

Panych came to public attention for his two-hander (a play for two actors) Last Call: A Post-Nuclear Cabaret (1982), which he wrote and in which he starred. The show was revised for CBC television, bringing Panych to national attention. He has since gained world notice; his play Vigil (1995, renamed Auntie & Me) played in London's West End in 2003 and in Paris in 2004 as well as in the US and in more than 30 Canadian cities. What many consider his first major play and one of his best, 7 Stories (1989), was staged in Japan in 2003. The Overcoat (1997) toured Canada after its 2001 Vancouver Playhouse remount, and has since toured the US; it has also been adapted for video by Principia Productions (2001, directed by Panych) and broadcast on the CBC. His plays continue to receive international productions.

Panych's plays reflect a humorous, dark world full of absurdist allusions. While an early play like The Story of a Sinking Man (1993) seems too directly imitative of Samuel Beckett (a man slowly sinks out of sight into the stage floor as he meditates on life and his own psychoses), the majority of the plays bring marvellously fresh and quirky observations of an existential and neurotic world, and there has been a clear maturation in style and subject through Panych's work. What Lies Before Us (2006) directly revisits the foundational existential play Waiting for Godot, locating two lost pioneers in the Canadian Rockies and compressing the secondary roles to introduce a Chinese servant, Wing, who is unable to understand the endless bickering of his employers. Inadvertently causing the dilemma that isolates the three, Wing also has the final speech, which gathers themes of the absurdity of life, chance, and the meaninglessness of language and overlays them with a hilarious but disturbing postcolonial critique.

Morris Panych has, some critics contend, a tendency to bypass character development by resorting to one-liners, preventing deeper engagement. Later plays like Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, however - while no less funny than his quick-paced earlier work - show Panych more in control of his characterizations and exploring more than surface oddities. In a CBC interview in 2004, he pointed out that what fascinates him is the daily struggle of ordinary people with life's bizarre minor annoyances rather than the major social or political issues of the moment (as, for example, in the monologue Earshot, 2001, about a man driven almost mad by neighbouring noise filtering into his tiny room).

Although Panych is interested in the small and particular, he also repeatedly explores the large theme of death. In Vigil a man visits his apparently dying aunt (though the ending surprises). In 7 Stories, a Chaplinesque man aims to throw himself off a building ledge while observing the hilarious, shallow urban lives of the building's tenants; he is saved from physical death by a flight into a metatheatrical universe, a movement into art itself, where he "forgot my own story."

A similar but less positive end seals the fate of another nameless man in Panych's The Overcoat, the playwright's hugely successful reinterpretation of two short stories by Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol. Co-conceived with Wendy Gorling, this wordless show eludes genre, becoming something other than (and, in fact, more than) ballet, movement theatre, mime or drama. Using characteristic filmic allusions and based in music by Shostakovich, the piece concludes a series of wordless shows built at the highly regarded Vancouver theatre school, Studio 58. Without any dialogue, these shows tap directly into the theatrical and performative, allowing the spectator to recognize - or miss - the sources, and to understand Gogol's simple narrative of a character's hopeless desire to be loved by the totalitarian society that rejects him - or to "write" another plot line onto the visual action. The play is set in an unnamed, apparently eastern European city (as is Panych's favourite of these movement shows, The Company, 1995). Panych's settings are generally undefined and somewhere at The Ends of the Earth (1994, the title of the play that earned Panych his first Governor General's Award). His plays are set in psychological and always intensely theatrical locations, thanks in no small part to stunning set designs by Ken MacDonald.

Morris Panych also explores families, but in unexpected, always funny, and usually dark assessments of their effect on children, siblings and parents. His children's plays Cost of Living (1990), 2B WUT UR (1992) and Life Science (1993) touch on these matters as, of course, does Vigil; new work such as Gordon (Montréal, 2010) and The Trespassers (Stratford, 2009; Vancouver, 2011) further explore domestic relationships. Gordon reminds us of Last Call in its depiction of urban dereliction and amorality, but the emphasis is on family legacy as an escaped convict, Gordon, robs his pathetic father, "Old Gord." In Trespassers, a boy coming to maturity confronts the very different values of his anarchist grandfather and born-again mother, each determined to mould him.

Since 2000, Panych has directed extensively: opera, contemporary and period drama, as well as his own work. He has also acted on television (notably, on The X-Files), and continues to write, the activity that most interests him. Indeed, his announced goal is to achieve his best writing. His interest in European plays and settings may have led to his adaptations of Gogol, Feydeau and Desvallières, and Schnitzler, published in a 2009 collection as Still Laughing. Multi-talented, driven and highly self-critical, Morris Panych continues a prolific career in Canadian theatre. Among his honours are 12 Jessie Awards in Vancouver, a Dora Award in Toronto, and the Chalmers Award.