The Factory Theatre's program notes this season open with a discourse on the hermeneutics of the texts being presented, written by the theatre's resident dramaturge.
I know: I know. No one has ever walked out of a theatre humming the narrative deconstruction. Ravi Jain seems to love staging post-modern theory at present, and his current production of David French's SALT WATER MOON nearly drowns under the weight of the intellectual conceits he's tied to the old-school romance.
Fortunately, Jain's warm heart for the project trumps his egg-head
inclinations in enough important ways to save it from being
more fun to discuss than to watch.
David French's SALT WATER MOON is truly a Canadian classic. The play is so
well-written, so passionate in its defense of the dreams of the working
poor, so lyrical in its language, and so achingly romantic, that the script is damn nearly impossible to
Jain and his team have made an arresting lovely decision to light the entire stage with candles in the formation of a map of the firmament, literally making heaven on earth. Pure theatrical magic!
Then, he has Kawa Ada as Jacob Mercer, the boy (he's 18 in the text) who has come home to try and win back his beloved, Mary Stone, and wrest his former flame from the clutches of the town's balding, monied schoolteacher. Mercer is the engine of the play, and Ada's charismatic performance propels the narrative with such charm and zeal that it's impossible not to cheer for him, and for them as a couple.
Jain's production also achingly illuminates the struggles of the working poor that French so poignantly wrote about a quarter of a century ago, and that still resonate. Both Awa and Mayko Nguyen as Mary Stone, make us powerfully hear and feel the the myriad constraints and humiliations of the lives they, and their parents before them, have spent in the service of other people's ambitions.
Less fortuitously, Jain also makes a series of directorial decisions so head-scratchingly weird, that even after reading his program notes twice, I wondered what the hell he was thinking.
The company has decided to abandon any pretext of Newfoundland accents, but without making any textual adjustments to the dialogue, which is written with all of the idiosyncrasies of East Coast speech. So when "S" gets left on the end of verbs, " I wants youse out" for instance; without the accent, it just sounds bizarre.
The good people of Newfoundland are descended from the Irish. This production is like hearing Behan or O'Casey performed without the appropriate Irish accent. The musical cadences of the speech are lost.
Then there's the music he opts for instead: a jazz musician, Ania Soul. He leaves her on stage, for the entire play, downstage right. She's dressed for a date in an up-do, lace stockings, boots and a frock, and constantly stealing focus. She sings intermittently through the entire show, which is lovely at times (off the top, before the play starts) and irritatingly distracting (the times when we are told we are hearing Mercer and hear her instead) at others.
Most annoyingly, Jain has her recite the stage directions of the play throughout the show. So things happen like, we're told Mary is in a yellow silk dress, and Mayko Nguyen is wearing skinny jeans and a baggy, wrinkled, washed out looking peach top. When Jacob leaves after Mary has sent him away, back down the road to Toronto, we're told she screams to Heaven. We hear a puppy like whimper, which would be a fine acting choice if it weren't so discordant with a text never meant to be articulated during the performance.
As a fatherless girl with a mentally ill mother, Mary has been a bread-winner since the age of 10, working as a live-in servant. Nguyen plays her as a woman who's decided make the best of a bad business: choosing a practical marriage to a man who can afford to support her, and, moreover, help to rescue her kid sister, who is living under the thumb of a sadistic matron in an orphanage. Mary can't afford a poor husband, or an unreliable one, and Jacob has already left her once.
Mary lives on the edge of the sea alright. She's trapped between a rock and a hard place. Nguyen made me feel Mary's suffering and her struggle last night, but not her love for Jacob, until the absolute last moment of the play.
That moment, where two poor kids fall in love, not with love, but with each other, and let their hearts rule their heads is the triumph of nature over nurture, and the actors played it beautifully. Soul picked that moment to hand her guitar over to a stage manager, before taking her curtain call, like a rock star. Everything the actors had worked 90 minutes to earn was marred by her striding upstage, and then taking her bow between the lovers. Ugh!
French wrote those stage directions for a reason, and that reason wasn't so a musician could sit on stage and recite them. Mary is wearing a yellow dress, as she stands on the on the porch of the house beside the sea, as a potent visual metaphor. She's the moon to Mercer's ocean. The love that brings her and Jacob back together is as inexorable as the tides of the sea.
Even a diva in training couldn't take the magic of their love away from them, or us, last night.
SALT WATER MOON continues at the Factory Theatre until March 13, 2016. http://www.factorytheatre.ca for dates, times, tickets and information.