Saturday, March 30, 2013

AS I LAY DYING at Theatre Passe Muraille

Theatre Smith-Gilmour is one of Toronto's most treasured independent companies.  The company is well-known for unique adaptations of literature, grounded in a very French school of physical theatre and clown.  Rooting a piece that has its genesis in a text in the very body-focused language of physical theatre, clown and buffoon seems an unlikely marriage, but for the most part, Smith-Gilmour makes it work, and work very well.  They have many awards to prove it.

The company's current offering is an adaptation of William Faulkner's AS I LAY DYING.  The Southern Gothic novel is chock-a-block with tragic and comic figures, strong compelling visuals and dramatic plot points.   I can certainly see why the company was drawn to the story.

Make no mistake: this is drama writ large.  Dying matriarch, floods, river crossings, fires, incest - and I'm just hitting a few of the page-turners.

Smith-Gilmour's production brings all of Faulkner's out-sized characters and epic drama fully to life. The pathos, tragedy and comedic moments are all wonderfully realized.

Dean Smith-Gilmour makes a suffocating monster of a victim-narcissist father fun to watch even as you want to hit him.  The scene where he uses guilt to manipulate his daughter out of ten dollars she desperately needs to hang onto, a "loan"you know he'll never repay is both funny and seat-squirmingly infuriating.  As the town doctor points out, he's the kind of man who would show up without a shovel to bury his own wife and then borrow one.

The rest of the cast was uniformly good.  All the Bundren kids stole my heart tonight. Daniel Robert's is a marvel as the young son. Nina Gilmour as the tragic Dewey Dell, Benjamin Muir as the damaged, angry Jewel, Julian De Zotti as driven-mad Darl and Dan Watson as the long-suffering and stoic Cash were uniformly terrific.  They all took on multiple roles tonight with great aplomb and fine character work.  They are a talented bunch.

With a great lighting design and sound score and a few simple costumes changes, the uniformly talented cast drew the audience into the story in all of its complexity.  Physically, the creation of character, scene and mood was impeccable.  Great, clear physical action made a burning barn, a raging river, a host of characters and an untamable horse palpable tonight.  Physically, this is a really exciting and dynamic show to watch.

Faulkner's heightened language is exquisite but complex and very challenging.   When the language is this beautiful, I want the words to count for as much as the physical action.  I want the play with the language to be as nuanced as the beautiful physical work.

The company's work with the text was uneven and their use of accents was inconsistent.

Some of the actors try to have a Southern accent and some don't. This was frustrating to listen to.  Given that Michelle Smith has never lost her strong French accent, I thought the entire cast should have just decided to forego the accents and focus on the other aspects of the text.

The actors could also have titrated their volume more, especially in the first act.  There are scenes where dialogue occurs over a loud soundscape but there were also monologues spoken in an otherwise silent theatre, where actors shouted through most of the entire speech.

The physical action of the production works beautifully.  Vocally it needed to be more specific and more pulled back. Dan Watson's last two speeches on the back of the wagon tonight were powerful and poignant in their nuance.  I would have liked to see more of that clean restraint, more pauses to let the ideas and word pictures breathe and less shouting so that the vocal work was as good as the physical work onstage.

I was very happy to have seen such a muscular production of a challenging text.  It is a fine production, well worth seeing.  I hope the company will revisit  it in the future with more attention to the words they have brought so powerfully to life in actions.

It's on at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto until March 31st.

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