Thursday, March 13, 2014

Mommy Issues: 6 Essential Questions At The Factory Theatre

This week was the first time I've seen a mainstage show at the Factory since the still sitting board unceremoniously fired the theatre's founding artistic director, Ken Gass.

I had attended the Fringe and NextStage there.  I support the Fringe and I was willing to move the boundary line that far.

Then friends self-produced in the Factory Studio this winter and after some thought, I decided to support them.  The show, "OF MICE AND MORRO AND JASP" was a marvel:  beautifully acted, intelligently and sensitively written and tightly directed.  I laughed and cried.  It was one of the high points of the winter theatre season for me.

Then someone gave me a ticket to see Ronnie Burkett and I went with a friend and it was fabulous, as it had been at LUMINATO back in June. Funny, moving, naughty, edgy:  I had a second great night at the Factory.

Then, Volcano produced a MacIvor play in the studio and I bought a ticket to A BEAUTIFUL VIEW and went with another friend.  It is not my favourite play of his, although he is one of my favourite playwrights but it was thought-provoking and affecting, a well-acted, well-directed production.

I tweeted about most of those shows.  I didn't write about them here because I saw them late into short runs and didn't think it was useful.

Then, a friend invited me to join her for 6 ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS this week.  She and I catch a few shows together over a season. She is a thoughtful person and a talented theatre artist.

When we last saw a show together earlier this winter and I told her I was still boycotting the Factory, she asked me a hard question: "Are we going to let the Factory die over this? Do you really think that's the right thing to do?"

The answer to that question, after some thought, was no.  I hate that the board is still in place. The new lobby looks like the garage that belonged to the friend's dad in FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF
(sans Ferrari or bucolic view). The elevator does not go to the top floor (seriously) meaning the vaunted "access" is for audiences, not artists who still need to climb a flight of stairs to the rehearsal hall on the top floor.

Still, I agree that the Factory Theatre is an important cultural institution in this city and no, I don't want to see it die.

So off I went to see the first play by a well-regarded Canadian woman writer and academic, Prisila Uppal. Her book, PROJECTION: ENCOUNTERS WITH MY RUN-AWAY MOTHER was nominated for a Governor General's Award for non-fiction. The material in that book forms the basis for her play, 6 ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS.

Professor Uppal has not adapted her smart, well-written, well-structured, lyrical and poignant book to the stage. Instead, she has chosen to use some of the material in the book as a jumping-off point for a "theatrical" interpretation of the story about her attempt to reconnect with her run-away mother twenty years after that mother abandoned her, her brother and her quadriplegic father in Ottawa. The daughter hasn't seen her mother in twenty years.  The mother now lives in Brazil and has cancer. Both mother and daughter are writers and academics.

The book just churns out story:  memorable characters, action that speaks to character and drives conflict. It has all the makings of a great play or feature film.

Unfortunately, almost none of that makes it to the stage. There's some beautiful language here, but it takes more than poetry to make a play. The play tries for some kind of magic realism but ends up a mostly incoherent mess.

6 ESSENTIAL... does not create engaging characters in believable relationships or escalate story stakes with action in any way that allows the audience to connect with the material.

The script suffers from a classic problem of first scripts by inexperienced playwrights. The protagonist does not drive the action of the play.

Director Leah Cherniak's decision to pitch this as a loose and loud clown show does neither the actors or the play any favours.  Renata (Mina James in an utterly thankless part) our heroine is presented as a bland bourgeois foil, an MD in the histrionic freak show of her family. Richard Zeppieri (Uncle Garbage) and Maggie Huculak (Grandmother) do their best,  but  Elizabeth Saunders' talent is wasted in an irritating, over-the-top performance as Renata's narcissistic Mother.  Much of the frenetic physical action, rather than being inherent to character, ends up feeling imposed on the amorphous text.

Like the direction, the acting and the script, the set is messy and unfocused, unnecessarily busy for no apparent reason.  I loved the projections, but disliked both the costumes and the rubbish set.

It's an 80 minute show and by the 30 minute mark, I was looking at my watch.

By the time  the play tells any story or creates any credible conflict between the characters, I had been so beat up by the pitch of the production and the performances and so frustrated with and stymied by the disjointed writing, I was just numb, irritated and wanted it to be over.  I didn't care about any of them.

Uppal freely quotes Dickens without crediting him.  Would she had absorbed some lessons in story structure and character creation from him.

You can make all kinds of magic happen in a theatre, as Dickens knew well.

I have experienced some powerful stage magic at the Factory this winter.  A clown in a red nose accidentally killed a wind-up dog and I wept with her.  When her sister slid up the stairs with a battered suitcase to find them somewhere else to go after a disaster, in one pause, one hunched shoulder, one tiny sigh, I felt her love for her sister and the crushing burden of taking care of someone who is totally out of control. A puppet named after an entree with a flower growing out of his head made my heart soar on the wings he wants and doesn't have, except in his heart.

Great theatre isn't about reality:  it's about naked emotional truth.  To make great theatre you need to make me feel your feelings and dream your dreams.

Uppal was right about one thing: some dreams are meant to die.

This play should never have been put on stage at a major theatre in this state. This production is a shoddy disservice to a great book that tells an incredible story.

One of the two artistic directors or dramaturges at the Factory should have put their foot down when this was still in development. There are plenty of skilled playwrights experienced at literary adaptations in town who could have made the book into an electrifying script. Sorry Professor, this is an epic fail.

Hopefully, the next show at the Factory Mainstage is better.

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