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Feb 4/05

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Reviewed here: Trout Stanley  (play), The Glass Menagerie (play), The Woodsman (movie), Cloud Atlas (novel) and After You (play)

Trout Stanley (Play) by Claudia Dey, directed by Eda Holmes, Factory Theatre, Toronto

So what is this piece that's packing them in and making such a splash among the smart young Toronto theatre crowd? Turns out to be a slice of kooky-gothic-Canuck. Twin sisters are celebrating their thirtieth birthday. One of the women works at the garbage dump; the other has stayed home for ten years wearing their dead mom's track suit. Seems that every year on their birthday somebody is found murdered. There's frequent reference to "Ugly Duckling", another sister who died in the birth canal. If she hadn’t, the twins would be triplets. (You begin to see how bizarre this all is.) Dialogue runs to off-the-wall remarks like, "I coulda ripped his eyes out but I didn't wanna leave the house." Along comes a mysterious drifter named after a fish (don’t ask). He may or may not be the murderer of the missing "scrabble champ stripper".

Thankfully, the three performers who have to pull this off are all very strong. Melody A. Johnson, the stay-at-home, strikes a very appealing note with her wan vulnerability. An odd character, unlike any other seen recently on stage, she seems real in every moment. Ms. Johnson captures perfectly that flat, monotonous delivery that passes for a white trash accent, Canadian version. As her boisterous sister, Michelle Giroux makes a striking contrast with her strutting sexuality. Ms. Giroux's comic voice  works well at first but the unnatural rhythms of her speech grate after a while. Gord Rand hits the mark dead-on as the scruffy intruder: dark and threatening but charismatic and unexpectedly gentle.

All the posturing and conniving make for great fun until the lack of forward momentum starts to take its toll. Characters stand around delivering pages and pages of back story in great long monologues. Self indulgent writing, if you ask me. Call me a hick, but I like a bit more plot, a bit more happening in a play.

What eventually exhausted my patience  and made me long to escape was the unbearable heat in the theatre. One character in the play talks about a dad who, because of a skin condition, had a doctor's note permitting him to go around half naked. I was wishing that doctor had set up a booth in the lobby for handing out permission slips during intermission.

 

The Glass Menagerie (Play) by Tennessee Williams, at CanStage, Toronto, directed by Chris Abraham

Possible reasons for staging one of the treasures of modern theatre: 1. You've never seen the perfect production and you think you can do it; 2. You want to do an innovative production that will shed some new light on the play: 3. You hope to bring in teenagers who are studying it in school and that will be good for the box office. 4. You love it so much that you want to do it no matter what.

Whatever your reasons, you have know that you're going to be up against the fond expectations of many fans of the play. In my case, the disappointments started coming fast and furious right off the top. In terms of the directing, so many things bugged me that I'll limit my complaints to a few major ones. It served no useful purpose to have the dining room scenes take place behind a semi-sheer curtain. When I'm paying to see actors’ faces, I don't want to be forced to peer at them through a veil. Several times actors did business that seemed unmotivated and senseless: Amanda lying on top of her son on the couch? And it did nothing for the play to see actors hurriedly changing costumes at the far sides of the stage when not involved in a scene.

Rosemary Dunsmore does a great performance of a character but it's not Amanda Wingfield, at least not the Amanda of my dreams. There is no delicacy to Ms. Dunsmore's portrayal. There is no music to her voice. The lilting poetry of the lines is gone. The real Amanda (in my mind) would not bellow the way this woman occasionally does. Why does this matter? Because I want to feel the fragility in Amanda's bluster. If we see her as a hothouse flower bravely holding her head up to the icy winds of reality, her tragedy becomes all the more moving.

Given that this is an autobiographical play, and knowing what we do about Mr. Williams, it might seem logical to portray his character, the narrator, as an affected, artsy man. But I do not think that is the way Mr. Williams, as writer, intended the character to be seen. Damien Atkins intones the role in a kind of poetic chant that never once strikes a note of genuine humanity. He seems to be doing a swishy Noel Coward thing without the wit or style. Tom's struggle is more striking when we see that, yes, he is a dreamy young man, but he’s a real guy with his feet on the ground.

About Michelle Monteith's performance, I kept asking: does Laura have to be such a freak? Here we have, not just a bum leg, but a whole body that is contorted, a strangely squeaky voice, a person that can hardly bear to look at anybody. To call this young person mousey would be flattery.

It must be admitted, though, that during the intermission, my companion's comments made it clear that he was having no problem with the play. Having come with no special expectations, he saw it as an interesting study of a young man's attempt to get out of the clutches of a domineering mother. Which just goes to show, I guess, that the play is strong enough to withstand a wrong-headed (in my view) production.

If it were not for loyalty to my friend, I might not have stayed for the second act. In the back of my mind, though, there was the thought that you never know what can happen in theatre. And sometimes it does.

The gentleman caller came on and I was enchanted. Apart from being too good looking (and not particularly Irish or Catholic seeming), Seann Gallagher makes the perfect gentleman caller: brash, full of himself, friendly, yet genuinely kind, his own insecurities not far from the surface. He uses an infectious giggle to great effect. The long scene with him and Laura sitting on the floor convinced me that this has to be one of the greatest pieces of writing in the American theatre. Ms. Monteith's face, bathed in candle light, began to thaw and smile under Mr. Gallagher's warmth: suddenly she was radiant and lovely. All her quirkiness of the first act was whole-heartedly forgiven. If we had to have that in order to have this transformation, then so be it.

I came away thrilled and surprised yet again by the magic that can happen in theatre -- when you least expect it.

 

The Woodsman (Movie)

Kevin Bacon plays Walter, a guy trying to adjust to life in the "community" after 12 years in prison for molesting young girls. (That's not giving away much because the previews make the situation perfectly clear.) Mr. Bacon's performance is terrific. He's fascinating every moment on screen. He captures the ex-con thing perfectly: tight-lipped, emotionally blocked, pale blue eyes hinting at the demons within. No trouble at all empathizing with this guy. Not that anybody would condone his crimes, but you feel how very difficult his situation is. What's particularly heartbreaking -- and very true -- is the way he comes to life and shines only in the most inappropriate and dangerous situations for him.

Was this movie released too late for Academy Award nominations? If not, Mr. Bacon has been screwed -- majorly. His performance is the best of any that I've seen by a male lead in a long while.

Would that the script were up to his talents. Granted, the scriptwriters have a tough assignment. The life of a person in Water's situation is grim; it's a tough slog for a man like that, no matter how you look at it. How are you going to make a drama of that? It would take some very subtle and sophisticated writing.

Unfortunately, this movie goes mostly for melodrama. We get the jealous machinations of the female co-worker whose overtures Walter has rejected. There's the unrelenting sister who won't let Walter come to his niece's birthday party. A friendly brother-in-law turns out to be as bigoted as everybody else. Hostility flares, of course, among co-workers at the lumber yard. Therapy sessions seem to be going not too badly until the therapist takes a machiavellian turn. Even the detective who drops in to check on Walter now and then is nasty. Dear me, what is the world coming to if you can’t turn to a cop when you need a shoulder to cry on?

All this may be true to life in some way; there are, after all, a lot of bastards out there. But such blatant, knock-down meanness doesn't make for very engaging drama. There are occasional hints of what the script might have achieved if it had tried for a more thoughtful approach. A scene that I'll call "the birdwatching scene" (by way of trying not to reveal too much of the plot) is suspenseful and intriguing: you never know exactly where it's going. It seems very real, you don't know whether or not the resolution of the scene is plausible, but it keeps you thinking.

There are also some good moments with Kyra Sedgwick as the woman who befriends and beds Walter. At first I was incredulous: yeah sure, any lumber yard could have a gorgeous, blonde, unattached, 40-year-old Farrah Fawcett type driving the fork lift! But gradually Ms. Sedgwick convinced me that she just might be the woman who could handle it. She's obviously been around the block a few times and her attitude to Walter is credibly cautious.

But I could not accept the ending of the movie. It's hard to discuss this without giving too much away, but let's just say that the message seems to be that jungle justice is the road to redemption.

Rating: (A for Mr. Bacon, D for the rest of it) = C-

 

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Novel) 2004

This book was a finalist for the Man Booker prize and the author has won lots of other prizes. Eleanor Wachtel recently interviewed Mr. Mitchell on her CBC radio program "Writers & Company", where she gave him the celebrity treatment. I considered myself lucky to pick up his book on a seven-day loan from the local library. The cover and the front pages are festooned with fulsome praise from eminent literary authorities. From all the buzz, I was expecting something amazing and revolutionary in terms of narrative technique.

Here’s the deal: The book consists of six stories, quite independent of each other except for tenuous links, and the stories are "nested" one within the other. Each story breaks off suddenly as a new one starts but all the stories are finished at the end of the book, in reverse order. The structure of the book, with each story representing a letter of the alphabet, would be mapped like this: A-B-C-D-E-F-E-D-C-B-A.

In the first installments, Mr. Mitchell convinced me that he really knows how to tell a story and that he can handle very different kinds of writing. The first one is a journal written by an American travelling in the south seas in the 18th century. The second is a series of letters written by a young composer from Belgium in the late 1930s. The third story is a mystery, set in the 1970s in the US. Here's where I began to have serious doubts about the project. The dialogue is extremely phony (hint to writers: don't try to imitate the 70s if you weren't there) and the plot is thin and cliched -- so much so that I began to wonder if it was supposed to be a parody.

After reading a bit of the fourth story, one about a British publisher running from debts, I decided to skip to the back of the book to see how the first three stories ended, because my seven days were running out. The stories all ended pretty much with a whimper.

What's the point? I did not see any cosmic significance in the linking of the stories. The connections were trivial, as far as I could see. For instance, the recipient of the letters in the second story plays a minor role in the third story. And the interrupting of the stories was merely irritating. Nothing was gained by coming back to a story after the intervening material. Is Mr. Mitchell simply trying to prove that it's a real bummer when a writer sets us up for a good story and then ditches us? I am certainly glad I did not pay the $24.95 price of the book to have that pointed out to me. It all strikes me as just a lot of writerly showing off.

Maybe if I went back and read the other two stories, the point of it all would suddenly come clear. But I do not think I will be taking this book out of the library again.

 

After You (Play) by Dave Carley at The Alumnae Theatre

Two elderly women (cousins) spend a day reminiscing at their cottage on the Kawartha Lakes. They're remembering with particular vividness a summer when one of them brought a young man to the island. Three young actors enact these scenes from the past, sometimes interacting with the older women in the present. The set where all this takes place – the deck of the cottage -- is one of the most attractive and most functional that I've seen recently on the Alumnae stage.

But the drama seems rather amorphous to me. It’s hard to get a fix on the issues. In the sections from the past, there’s talk about possibly going off to the Spanish Civil War; also something about a boat factory. In the present, one of the women has become an ordained minister but she seems rather conflicted about it. There's some bother about a parade of boats and a blessing that she's expected to give. The other woman wrote a successful children's book but she's disgruntled about it for some reason or other. None of this seems very compelling.

I think a major part of the problem is that the characters of the two women are not clearly enough delineated. This may be partly a fault of the script, partly of casting. Apparently one woman is artistic and the other is political but you have to strain to see the differences. They both seem to be pretty feisty, opinionated old girls; they're even physically similar. There's frequent talk about the young man representing a fork in the road for them both but the different directions they took don't stand out very clearly.

A delicate memory play, where there isn't much forward momentum, needs top-notch acting. If the actors can establish a sense of realness, of actuality, there's some chance of being lured into the spirit of the thing. The two older actors (Meg Hogarth and Elva Mai Hoover) acquit themselves well, which isn't surprising given their experience, but I would have liked a bit more nuance in their performances. The younger actors don't fare so well. Each of them seems to have a grasp of some aspects of their characters but they never manage to establish a truly natural rhythm to their speeches. You can never forget that you're watching young actors do their thing.

As is my custom, I read nothing about this play beforehand, not even the program notes. I like to see how a play or film grabs me completely unprepared; for me, that's the best test of any production. In this case, it meant that the first act was well on its way towards intermission before I twigged that the younger women were enacting the youthful versions of the older women. Up to that point, I had thought we had simply two older women watching some young guests cavort at their cottage. Mind you, there were some confusing anachronisms and one of the elderly women seemed the think the young guy was her lover. But, what the hell, we all get a little disoriented from time to time.

Maybe the play would have made a better impression on me if I'd caught on sooner. But the fact that I didn't seems to indicate that something's wrong somewhere: the script? the production? my brain?

Your response is welcome: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com