I went to all the trouble of writing out the stages of the toy-seeking quest in Vernus Says SURPRISE, only to realize while driving home that the play’s whole point was that it was a character study. Don’t blame me; blame Ken Godmere, who plays the titular Vernus, the only person on stage. (Full disclosure: Ken’s daughter, Emma, is both the stage manager for this play and a former Canadian University Press colleague of mine.) Godmere renders elderly Vernus’ journey – from home to toy store and back again, in order to get a birthday present for his granddaughter – in such a compelling way that I feel like I shouldn’t be held accountable for caring about the plot.
Vernus Says SURPRISE is a one-man show, so it’s obviously to Godmere’s credit that his Vernus is a fun character to watch. Even more so when you consider that he doesn’t speak. And he’s not only the only person on stage, he is – with the exception of a single wooden chair – the only thing on stage at any time, meaning he’s interacting with empty spaces and a broad panoply of sounds, dialogue from unseen speakers included. The stagecraft is remarkably precise, however, so the stage manages to feel populated with people and objects, and Vernus’ dealings with the things around him feel tactile and believable. You get a good sense of every environment Vernus spends time in, from his daughter’s (mildly hazardous!) home to the bustling big-box toy store, as Vernus finds occasionally ingenious ways to deal with the obstacles put in front of him.
But, hey, I said this was a character study, didn’t I? So the joy isn’t exclusively in watching Vernus go from place to place but in how he manages to do it. And there’s a lot of joy. With his pants hitched up to his waist and a comically short tie, Godmere’s Vernus is a hunched and slow figure, but a clever and funny one. That makes the oddly mortal moments – holding a door open at a bank with what seems like a Herculean effort, cutting off a practice golf swing midway through, dumping spare change on a counter with a sweaty brow – stand out all the more; the play isn’t grand or difficult, but low-key, sweet, playful, and fundamentally entertaining, especially since it has the sense to step back, be quiet, and let silent Vernus breathe.