Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Under Construction: THE ART OF BUILDING A BUNKER at the FACTORY THEATRE
It's tough to want to write about a play on a day when the nation's capital has come under armed seige, a gunman was shot dead by the Sergeant-at-Arms on Parliment Hill, and an unarmed member of the Armed Forces was shot dead while performing his duty, as an honour guard, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A real bunker suddenly seems like a far less crazy idea.
However, here we are. Last night, five days after THE ART OF BUILDING A BUNKER opened, the media was invited to attend, and review the show. While I was at the theatre, I was handed a postcard by a group called reviewproject.org, and offered a prize for posting an opinion. On my way out the door, some young thing walked up to my friend and me, and asked for our "gut reaction". I should have said, "no comment." I didn't.
I don't write for prizes, though it is always nice to win one. I don't write "my gut reaction" when I write critical analysis. I try to go away and think, carefully, about what I want to say. Sometimes, that takes a few days. I want to refine my thinking, as I hope the playwrights and the creators of the show have done.
THE ART OF BUILDING... tabled a lot of good ideas, and some very fine work from the performer, as well as from the design team of Camellia Koo (set and costumes) Michelle Ramsay, (lighting) and Richard Feren (sound). However, the script by Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia still feels like work in progress, albeit work that is potentially really interesting and certainly topical.
This is a "gut" play. The protagonist, a guy called Elvis, has been sent for sensitivity training. When we meet him, he's starting Day One of the week-long process, with a bunch of really irritating people, and, an absolutely insufferable group leader.
Adam Lazarus is a fine physical comedian. He deftly creates the "group" Elvis is subjected to, switching with ease from character to character. The ponce of a pseudo-spiritual leader is a particularly funny turn. In the first half, we're in Ricky Gervais meets Benny Hill territory. While somewhat slight, and mildly offensive, (sexist, homophobic, racist) it's basically light-weight observational comedy.
Then we end up in the bunker Elvis has built in his basement, as he tries to summarize what he's learned in the week. If he fails, he loses his government job. His wife and baby are upstairs, while he remains alone with his paranoia, irritation and increasingly dark thoughts.
The two halves are so poorly joined, I felt as if I was watching two separate, and tenuously linked, short one acts, glued together to make a 90 minute show. The writing was interesting, but it was not of a piece, and the direction did nothing to wallpaper over that.
What I said, in my "gut reaction" last night was, "you need to finish thinking before you write." What I should have said was, "Writing is easy. Re-writing is hard." This play needed a re-write and it didn't get one. That;'s too bad, because it could be a brilliant exploration of the ways fear drives prejudice. All the ingredients are there: they just need to be put together a little better. The bunker is still under construction.
As to the Factory Theatre's decision to ask critics to review five days into the run: well, it sold them three or four more subscriptions, or at least a few more tickets. Richard Ouzonian at the The Star, J Kelly Nestruck at The Globe and Mail, and NOW Magazine ( the three big guys, and they are guys, writing at all three papers) bought tickets and reviewed earlier in the run, as did Lynne Slotkin. Did the experiment to "foreground the audience in the discussion" work? Not so far. Does this mean, to be relevant, I should just buy a ticket and review early? Does the theatre want to stop giving out media comps? Why not just say so?
I'd just like to make a further observation, also about money and management. Since the end of the Factory's last season, their Director of Marketing, their General Manager and their senior dramatist are all no longer in the employ of the company. All three of the former staff: Gregory Nixon, Sara Meurling, and Iris Turcott, number among the most senior and respected cultural administrators, producers, and script developers in the country. Only the artistic staff, and the hated board remain.
Currently the Factory has no General Manager. They are in the middle of a significant renovation of their second space. I was asked for donations last night, but not to a capital campaign, only to subsidize the development of new plays. Judging from what I saw last night, they need more development time on new work. However, is the new theatre totally paid for? How?
I can't imagine a senior business staff member would have taken a decision to stir the pot with the media at a time when the Factory is so badly in need of goodwill, and money, especially from subscribers and donors, who are, generally, older. The theatre already alienated many audience members (and artists) with their decision, two years ago, to fire the old(er) AD, Ken Gass, and replace him with his younger assistants. Now, all of the old(er) people are gone.
Your dad may read the paper online, he may even have a FB page and a Twitter account, but, he's reading the paper, and, probably, listening to the radio. He's also more likely to donate to the theatre, because generally, he has more dosh.
I'm just an old irrelevant blogger, not one of the cool kids. I spend, on average, $1200-1500 a year, attending the theatre. I have richer friends in my age demographic who spend 10K. A lot of them ask me what's good. I've been going to the theatre, and working in the business, since the '70s.What the hell do I know?