Saturday, April 13, 2013

THIS is great acting but the script is not all that...

"Your problems are, what is that word you taught me? - dinky."

So says Christian, the only real grown-up in the room as he leaves the over-heated loft of Marrell and Tom, the thirty-something couple and their friends Jane and Alan in THIS, an articulate, well-acted, well-designed but unsatisfying exploration of the beginning of mid-life, currently on at The Berkley Street Theatre at Canadian Stage.

Let me begin by saying this production is worth seeing for the uniformly fantastic acting, the inventive re-design of the space by Astrid Janson and the cerebral direction of Matthew Jocelyn which is both one of the production's strengths and part of its problems.

The script, which while witty, articulate and well-observed was full of people I couldn't warm up to.  The acting made me care. The writing didn't. THIS is admirable to watch, but not easy to love.

Jane (a wonderfully angst-ridden and awkward Laura Condlln) is a poet and educator, recently widowed and left to raise a daughter we never see, though they have a scene together. Jane's best girlfriend since college, Marrell, decides Jane needs to "get over it" and her solution is to set Jane up with a guy she herself finds hot, Christian, a buff, French, single doctor who works for Doctors Without Borders.

The problems here is Marrell wants to sleep with Christian as the sex in her marriage has gone down the toilet since having a baby that wakes up every 15 minutes. Yanna McIntosh made her character's sexual, emotional and professional frustration palpable.

Her husband Tom wants to sleep with Jane.  Jane wants to sleep with her gay best friend Alan, an alcoholic singleton with a career based on an eidetic memory, Alan has the hots for Christian.  Christian cops to being bisexual but finds Alan's solipsistic wit and drunkenness "irritating".

The problems with this play began, as they so often do in life, when actual sex rears its selfish and ugly head.

I really wish the one sex scene, so germane to the plot of this play, if you can use the word plot this loosely, hadn't taken place on stage, for all kinds of reasons.

As Tom, a self-pitying and selfish asshole of an underachieving husband, Jonathon Young makes a meal of playing a really unlikeable guy with a big chip on his shoulder.  The articulation of his desire for Jane was far more electrifying, dangerous and sexy than their awkward tryst. I am no prude about sex onstage.  There was plenty of it last week in ARIGATO TOKYO but is intrinsic and felt natural. Last night,  I felt sorry for the actors having to do that in front of us . It felt unnecessary and almost exploitative. I sat there thinking some things really are better left to the imagination. 

Then there are the things I wish Jocelyn had let happen on stage. I really wish that baby had screamed every 15 minutes in every scene it was in until the end.  I wish the writer had made the sullen, grief-stricken 9 year old an actual character.

Once you have kids, you have to grow up. You either give up being selfish or you become a really shitty parent.  That is the real struggle I see most of my late thirty-something friends engaged in, besides failed career expectations and overwhelming debt. I sure didn't see that struggle on stage in any substantial way last night. It gets hinted at, but never really happens.

Melissa James Gibson, the much-awarded writer said in the program notes she initially thought she was writing about infidelity, but really she was writing about mortality. THIS is a little about both, but really, about nothing much.

Maybe I'm too old for this kind of thing.  Or maybe it's too hard to watch a play about an affair in a group of friends when I've seen Pinter's BETRAYAL brilliantly done a few times.

I've had friends die too young.  I dated a man whose best friend committed suicide.  When he spoke of him, more than 20 years later, stone-faced and dry eyed, I felt the pain of his loss and his guilt for surviving, as though the death had happened last week.

There needed to be a hole in the room where Roy, the departed husband, used to be. He needs to be the elephant in the room and he is hardly there in the play.  Neither Roy, nor the hole left by his absence is made palpable by the writer until the end. It was Condlln's and Nashman's thankless task to try and deliver a pay-off emotionally that isn't on the page. They did a terrific job.

When I got home, I wished I'd had a copy of  GHOST or TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY or hell, BLITHE SPIRIT to watch. I found myself craving something about death where the writing was as good as the acting.

I was very glad to have seen the play for the wonderful acting, some of the inventive directing and the terrific set.  As for great writing:  I got that from Daniel McIvor last weekend.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Arigato Tokyo at Buddies in Bad Times and the Debate about How to Get More Bums in Seats

"All suffering is caused by grasping and illusion."  So say the Buddhists.

Canadian writer Carl Dewer is on a book tour in Tokyo, promoting his fourth novel to a room full of people who don't speak his language.  Dewar sees himself as free of attachment: a man for whom satisfaction is derived from the ephemeral sensations he obtains from coke, casual sex, booze and clubbing rather than deeper connection.

Then Dewar finds himself in Tokyo immersed in another culture and an overwhelming  love triangle with his translator, a woman who describes herself as "made of longing" and her brother, a Noh actor dedicated to physical and spiritual perfection in the service of the creation of his art.   When Dewar arrives in Tokyo he thinks he is beyond love. He learns that he doesn't know the first thing about it.

McIvor has written a beautiful play, a profound contemplation of the nature of human love and desire and the suffering that so frequently attends it.  The script is so filled with exquisite language, complex ideas and emotions that I wanted to re-hear it immediately.

The production  is wonderfully directed by Brendan Healy and performed on what may be the best-designed and lit stage I've seen this season.  Julie Fox and Kim Purtell deserve kudos for their excellent work.   Watch how the lighting shifts on the metal rear screen, suggesting a moon, a pool, a club, a sky. It's just beautiful.

The performances are as restrained, sophisticated, elegant and evocative as the production elements. David Storch as the troubled Dewar, Cara Gee as Nushi Toshi, the translator who falls in love with him and Michael Dufays as her brother,  Noh actor Yori Toshi all give wonderful performances.

The company worked with a choreographer (Hiroshi Miyamoto) and a dialect coach (Eric Armstrong) and their detailed efforts at making the world of the play come to life have certainly paid off.  The actors did a great job of conveying another culture, another way of hearing and seeing the world, another way of expressing feeling and making art. The accents were terrific.

Special mention must be given to Tyson James as the lip-syncing nightclub performer Etta Waki.  This is a very difficult turn to do well and James nails it. Waki is both Dewar's lover outside of the triangle, and the play's narrator.  In a way, s/he is the embodiment of Tokyo: glamorous, decadent, dazzling, ageless and enigmatic.  "None of us are one thing...."

Brendan Healy, who is also Buddies in Bad Times artistic director has very publicly come out this week and said the show was struggling to find an audience.  There was apparently a meeting of artistic directors in town earlier this week due to concern about attendance levels at theatres across town this past season.

The City of Toronto could help the theatre make more money by changing a ridiculous liquor law that only allows alcohol to be consumed in the seats of a theatre with fixed risers.  If the risers are stable enough to support seated patrons, they are stable enough to support seated patrons with a drink in hand.  It's not like there will be beer hawked in the aisles.  Patrons will have, at most, two drinks during the course of the performance.  An extra $100 a night from the concession is an extra $1400 across the run, not a small matter to a struggling theatre company.

Buddies wasn't full last night and it certainly deserved to be.

Yes I know:  it is $30-$40 to go see a show on a weekend night. Spend less at the pub, take lunch for a week, eat dinner before the show at home, cut back on $4 lattes, ride your bike, walk or take the TTC, don't buy another crappy piece of clothing or cheap pair of shoes to sit unworn in your closet and go out and support your local theatre instead.  I was certainly glad I did last night. ARIGATO TOKYO is a great play and this is an excellent production.