By Mark Fenton
Published July 19, 2019
Did you know that the coat check profession had a dark underbelly? I didn't. But I now know the one question I'd ask any candidate if I was interviewing for the job. You will too when you see Natalie Frijia's impressive 'Black Wool Jacket'.
In the midst of life, Dante became lost in a forest and sought deliverance by ducking into the underworld. In the midst of a PhD on circuses, Natalie Frijia became lost in her thesis and to make ends meet she took a job in the coat check room of a Toronto night club. Are the two journeys so different?
Unsurprisingly, Natalie's co-workers come from varied backgrounds. One taught grade-school, another worked in airport security. They're better than Natalie when it comes to dealing with people who challenge authority, and she has the good sense to watch them and learn.
This is a nightclub. People are drinking. As we know, drinking makes people more aggressive and obnoxious. As we discover from this play, drinking gives people an exponentially greater chance of losing a coat check tag.
Natalie doesn't feel superior to her coworkers, nor does she treat them as subjects in a social science experiment. She has the rare ability embrace a low-level job for what it can tell her about the world.
The magic comes from her ability to interweave anecdotes about the coat check job with her academic work, and the work or other academics in the field. It's the interweaving of these different narrative stands that holds the story together. I learned things about the olfactory memory of elephants and their seismic communication that I wouldn't have thought I needed to know but that I'm now glad I do.
The play doesn't feel like a series of stories, it feels like a single gesture, with more craft than we had any reason to expect anyone extracting from a job looking after people's clothes. It would be a stretch to call this poetic theatre, though she does do a section in tetrameter couplets.
Favourite site-specific moment: When she was promoting other players in the 2019 Hamilton Fringe, she did a shout-out to the production who loaned her a black wool coat, as she'd left hers in Regina. Seriously? Your play has two props and you forgot one of them? I'm from Regina. This is a place where I strongly advise you never to lose a winter coat!
It's a commonplace to describe our era as the 'age of the selfie,' with museum shows that turn the camera on the creator, indie-rock albums that describe quotidian events in the life of the musician, mega-books of undisguised autobiography. These projects can easily become quantitative assemblies of the mundane, a there's a sameness to a lot of it.
Natalie Frijia's creation is a reminder that a small scale, the barest of staging, and a tight multi-layered script can take us places we've never been.
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