Monday, February 14, 2011

The December Man at PTE

On my last evening in Winnipeg for a week, my sis Lisa and I set out to PTE to see THE DECEMBER MAN, a story about what happens to a family in the aftermath of the Montreal Massacre at the Ecole Polytechnique.

This is an issue play: always a dicey gambit. If the show is great, you get "Commencement" about to be presented by The Winnipeg Fringe in March or "Scorched" which was done at the Warehouse last season. If it's not, you get this kind of thing: half polemic, half kitchen-sink drama, clumsily constructed and clunkily written. Not even the able Anne Hodges in the director's seat is able to save this thing from itself.

The narrative unfolds backwards (think Pinter's BETRAYAL) which can be an effective device. In this case it means we don't meet the protagonist until a third of the way through the play and spend a lot of time mired in a zone of domestic siege until then.

The actors do their best to make a meal of this mess of a script but it is tough slogging. Ron Lea fares best here finding both the humour and the pathos in Benoit, the working-class dad. Marina Stephenson-Kerr unfortunately never gets a grip on her accent and is stuck playing a badly-written, two-dimensional unsympathetic character: the nagging, overtly religious mother.

Tristan Carlucci as Jean gets the unhappy task of delivering most of the author's own musings on the tragedy: why did a room full of men leave a roomful of women to be shot by a lone gunman?

Jean's relationship with one of the deceased is alluded to but never developed in the narrative. That relationship, centred on the young people's ambitions for themselves instead of their family's aspirations for them might have given the play the poignancy and depth it clearly strives for and misses.

In fairness, I have to tell you, gentle readers, that my sister quite enjoyed it and was moved by it in ways that I was not. It also won the GG so I am in a dissenting minority position when I tell you I thought the script a mess.

Since survivor guilt is the play's main theme, there are at least two deaths too many. After a disaster like Montreal, it is living, not dying that's hard and leaves us here to wrestle with our consciences, our memories and our thoughts. Go, but make sure if you do, to also see COMMENCEMENT next month and compare this uneven if well intended offering at PTE with a truly great production of a brilliant play on the same theme.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tainted Love - A Festival of Strindberg

Tonight was the final of Winnipeg's annual winter theatre festival focused on the works of one master playwright. This year someone decided three of the coldest weeks of the winter were perfect for August Strindberg, one of the major freaks of late 19th century European theatre.

All three pieces I saw were adaptations: Julie Tepperman's "The Father" at WJT, Ross McMillan's "Miss Julie at the Gates" a staged reading presented by MAP and Patrick Marber's post-war take on Miss Julie "After Miss Julie" at MTC Warehouse. I really wish I'd seen more but a late taxi last Saturday night kept me out of "The Creditors".

To say Strindberg had a twisted view of human relations is putting it mildly. Strindberg it seems, was never happy and neither is anyone in any of his plays. It's often pointed out that he's a misogynist but really he doesn't like anybody very much.

Ross's tale about an imaginary visit by Strindberg's theatre company to a well-to-do Winnipeg home of dilettante theatre producers was charmingly quirky. Gord Tanner was a very convincing Strindberg, managing to make the paranoid misanthrope almost endearing. Supported by a fine cast of Winnipeg stalwarts including Carolyn Gray and Sharon Bajer, it was a most enjoyable romp.

The cast of AFTER MISS JULIE over at the TOM HENDRY was uniformly great and the whole servant-master, dom-sub gamesmanship of the piece was mostly quite effective. There was real sexual and emotional tension onstage and all of the relationships were believable. The third act of the play doesn't really work as a piece of writing. No amount of hard work on the part of the actors, director and designers can make biting the head off a bird really playable in a drama in 2011. John Cleese could have pulled this off in FAWLTY TOWERS but it's just so overwrought here it bordered on the ridiculous. CLOSER is a much better script from Mr. Marber, but kudos to the cast for a game take on a tough script and a mostly fine night of theatre.

My final day of the festival was spent at the WJT watching THE FATHER. In the aftermath of the tragic loss of one of their children, a couple becomes embroiled in a blame game leading to an act of brinkmanship that takes down their marriage and completely destroys the father of the title.

The great cast of Graham Ashmore, Jennifer Lyon, Miriam Smith and Arne MacPherson was very well directed by Mariam Bernstein. I particularly liked her use of family photos projected in the background as a constant visual reinforcement of what had been lost and what was at stake. Mr. MacPherson in particular gave a galvanizing and completely affecting performance as a man driven to madness by the idea that he's going to lose the only child he's got left. It was a great afternoon of theatre.

Now unlike our friend Robb who had seen EVERYTHING the festival had to offer, this was all I managed to get to. However, fine as these offering were, they were for the most part, well, grim. May I gentle readers, and gentle festival programmers, make a suggestion? I'm all for serious theatre. Hell I write the stuff myself. But people, it's January in Winnipeg! It's -29 without the windchill. I got my M/C card bill from Christmas this month and coupled with my Fringe debt, it's not pretty.
I need cheering up. Can we have someone - a little more lighthearted? Cheerful? Romantic? Funny, even? Just for one year? There's a recession on and we've been at war for 9 years and we're stuck with a dead-locked minority parliament and that's before we get to the international news. Three weeks of tragedy is over. Please Mr. Schipper, a comedy tonight?