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Toronto Fringe 2009

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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
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This wasn't a great year for Finge-ing here at Dilettante's Diary, given that we were out of town for most of it. However, I did get to see two shows. Friends of mine were involved in both of them -- which is probably why I managed to see them.

Interrogation by Benjamin Noble; directed by Bryn Jennings; with Ben Noble, Pamela Johnson, Alex Dallas, Karie Richards, Vanessa Smythe; at the Tarragon Extra Space

A guy sits at his desk, centre stage, struggling with writer’s block. He makes some comments about suffering for one’s art. Before yawns start breaking out all over the place, a visitor arrives with some food for the writer. Seems he’s suffering from some kind of mental disorder and has recently been released from hospital. This visitor may be a social worker or an outreach person. She compliments him on the fact that he’s talking today. She encourages him to get on with his writing.

Which he does. The story that he elaborates concerns a desperate young woman who reluctantly takes a job as a phone sex provider. She has a young boy, which complicates matters. The writer chap seems to be developing a relationship with her; maybe they're having an affair (?). At another point, the actor playing the young woman appears to be a hopeful screen writer. Or is this the same woman? At this juncture, the writer guy appears to be a professor who is advising her. Meanwhile, a sort of agent-editor-publisher (not sure which) harrangues the writer about the need for him to finish his writing so that money will start pouring in.

The various aspects of this complicated concept take some sorting out on the part of the viewer. But is the effort worth it? There is a tendency among playwrights to think it's fascinating for audiences to watch the writers spin elaborate fantasies about what’s going on inside their minds. The endeavour can often be more satisfying for the playwrights than for the audiences. Rather than watch imaginary phantoms appearing and disappearing in vague mental spaces, I would prefer to watch interaction with real people. And, speaking of interaction, there’s not much of it going on with the writer character because he sits centre stage like an immovable sphinx for nearly the whole play.

None of which is to say that the piece is not well performed and directed. Ben Noble, who is in real-life the author of the script, plays the writer. He goes for a lost puppy dog look that works well. Karie Richards catches the ambivalence of a nice young person who’s giving the phone sex thing her best shot. The difficult job of impersonating the little boy is well handled by Vanessa Smythe who plays it simply and unaffectedly.

About the character and the performance of the agent-type, however, there are some problems. Although the role seems, in many ways, something of a fifth wheel, perhaps it’s helpful to the forward momentum of the play to have someone egging the writer on. On reflection, though, you have to wonder why this guy would have someone hounding him about bringing in big bucks. This loser doesn’t look like his financial potential is going to be of any interest to anybody in the industry. Or is this agent person just another figment of the writer’s imagination? I’m not sure.

Alex Dallas, who plays the role, is obviously an accomplished performer but I wondered why the character had to have a posh, lah-ti-dah, over-bearing British manner. The exaggerated theatricality undermined what chance there was for us to believe in the reality of the situation. Wouldn’t the role have served the play better if the character had seemed less like someone just off the boards of the Stratford festival? The character could still have been bitchy and aggressive – but more in the way of an ordinary person.

Perhaps it was because of Pamela Johnson’s very ordinariness that her appearance as the meal-bearing visitor struck me as so effective. She is recognizably a well-meaning, middle-aged person caught in a difficult situation. That’s why the writer’s eventual pouncing on her is so electrifying. When he blows a mammoth hairy about her being kind to him for all the wrong reasons, you feel acutely the anguish of the situation. (It also helps that he finally gets out of his chair.)

Unfortunately, though, this emotional climax comes about two-thirds of the way through the play, after which nothing can top it. However, the ending offers an interesting surprise in terms of our understanding of what has been going on. That helps to make the whole enterprise feel more worthwhile. At eighty minutes, though, the pay-off is too slight. Some drastic cutting would make the piece far more satisfying.

 

Red Machine: Part One Concept by Christopher Stanton; written by Brendal Gall, Erin Shields and Michael Rubenfeld; directed by Chris Hanratty, Christopher Stanton and Geoffrey Pounsett; featuring James Cade, John Gilbert, Paula-Jean Prudat and Tova Smith.

To convey the effect of this play, it’s going to be necessary to describe scenes in some detail. However, I’m not too worried about giving away plot details because the plot – if any – is elusive. The piece – just the first part of a project (the second part will be performed at Summerworks) -- is defiantly enigmatic.

We open with an elderly man sitting on a hotel bed, shuffling overturned cups on a coffee table, in the way of a magician. A young guy enters. He thinks the room is his; the old man claims ownership of the room. The young guy can’t remember how he got into the room. Some discussion about a key doesn’t produce any clarity. The phone rings and the young guy picks up the coffee maker and puts it to his ear.

Things, as Charles Dodgson would say, get curioser and curioser.

Given that this part of the play was written by Brendan Gall, the echoes of Samuel Beckett aren’t surprising. (You always get some Godot in Gall's scripts.) While the scenario may not be entirely original, it’s handled well. There’s lots of droll humour. One section about a picture frame containing a photograph of a model offers some especially piquant wit. There are also some interesting speculations about how surprise does or doesn’t function in the practice of magic.

The scene shifts – where to, I’m not sure – and we meet a young woman bound up in winding cloths like a mummy. Sounding like somebody from the bible belt, she verbalizes at great length (writing here by Erin Shields) about Jesus. Seems she has some problems with the religiosity of her parents and their pastor. She may be dealing with some sexual abuse. As a result of which, she’s going to establish a church without Jesus.

Throughout most of this monologue, the young man from the first scene just stands and watches. Eventually, she asks him to unwind her wrappings. Muddy writing all over her body has something to do with Jesus too. It’s all pretty baffling but some unmistakably tender moments occur when the young man picks her up and gently places her in a bathtub that has been wheeled on.

Next, Michael Rubenfield’s contribution to the script takes us back to the hotel room. The young man is lying on the bed, a blonde woman in sexy black underwear beside him. They’re sharing, presumably, a post-coital smoke. After some film-noirish carry-on, the woman puts on a skirt, blouse and shoes and appears to become an ordinary partner, one who brings her man a morning coffee. In due course, the older man from the first part re-appears and returns to the business of shuffling the coffee cups. End of play.

What to make of it?

Admittedly, it’s an experiment. As far as I know, the idea of taking three scripts by three writers, having them staged by three directors, and trying to wield the whole into one coherent piece is novel. Undoubtedly, to gauge the project’s ultimate effectiveness, we’ll need to see the second half at Summerworks.

In the meantime, the big question is whether there is any continuity, any thread running through the whole. The second section is the most problematic in this respect in that we have no clue as to why the young man finds himself in the presence of the mummy-wrapped girl. I’m all for breaking the conventions of theatrical presentation. But how long can you leave your audience wondering: what the hell is this and why are we here? The program notes say the play’s exploring the different areas of the brain. I’m not sure that clarifies much. In any case, I don’t think a play should rely on program notes for intelligibility. Theatre’s about the playing not the reading.

For the un-tutored audience, then, the only apparent link among the three parts must be the young man. Perhaps, then the play can be taken as a dream-like slice of his life, even a nightmare. Did I mention that he goes into convulsions every now and then, as if he’s being electrocuted? Clearly, he’s not having a good time. Early on, reference is made to a book in the table by the hotel bed. Near the end of the play, the young man opens the book and finds that it records his entire life. As he reads, we hear about stuff that we’ve seen happening. (There’s also ironic reference to a theatrical company’s submitting their experimental piece to a festival.) So maybe some existential point is being made about the cyclical nature of human experience.

But I found the play, in the second and third parts especially, to be more effective on the level of the visuals than the text. In this, it struck me as being like the theatre of the great British innovator Lindsay Kemp. What his plays have to say isn’t so much in the words as in the fascinating pictures presented. Tableaux where it suddenly hits you: I’ve never seen anything like this before – what could it mean? Several such images struck me in this production: the young man and the blonde woman jumping giddily up and down on the hotel bed; the older man waltzing across the playing space with one of the women when he reappears near the end of the play; the young man cringing, bare-chested, over the bathtub while washing himself in a ritualistic way. Very evocative music accompanied all of these moments.

For which moments and many others, thanks to the exquisite directing throughout. The acting too, is flawless. John Gilbert, as the older man, is especially strong. He has that focussed, effortless authority that you get from some really mature actors. Paula-Jean Prudat has a beguiling ingenuosity as the religiously-troubled young woman and Tova Smith does a nice switch from the lubricious dame to the sensible companion. As the young man, James Cade is tense and coiled throughout, but maybe you’d be tense too if you were expecting to be electrocuted any time. Still, I can’t help wondering what the play would have been like if the central character were a little more laid-back at times, a little more casual in his presentation. It could be, though, that his taut manner is necessary to propel the play forward.

Whatever its unresolved issues at this stage of the process, there’s no denying that this is a worthy attempt to show us, in a theatrical way, something about life that we’ve never grasped before. Isn’t that what theatre’s for?

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com