Sunday, May 25, 2014

Watching Glory Die @ Canadian Rep Theatre in the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs

This was my first visit to Canadian Rep Theatre, Ken Gass' newly formed theatre company after the Factory Theatre unceremoniously dumped him in 2012.  He seems to be doing just fine, judging by the list of donors in his program and the first-rate crew he's assembled for this interesting, intelligent and challenging, if not entirely satisfying production.

Canadian Rep's second show uses Canadian Stage's Upstairs space at the Berkeley Street Theatre to good effect, presenting a solo show written and performed by lauded Canadian playwright, Judith Thompson.

'Watching Glory Die" is an exploration of the death in custody of a teen-aged girl.

"Glory" is a stand-in, of sorts, for Ashley Smith, the 17 year old who died of auto-strangulation while in custody at the Grand Valley Correctional Institution in 2007. Guards stood and watched her asphyxiate, without intervening.  Her death was eventually ruled a homicide.

In her final year of life, Ashley was moved between 17 institutions in one year, including a three-month stint at a forensic mental health facility, where she eventually refused treatment, as is everyone's right. She was then taken to Grand Valley, where she died in solitary confinement.

It was a tremendously disturbing case, highlighting issues with both the Canadian justice system, and the mental health system. As a society, we incarcerate far too many seriously mentally ill people without adequately treating the mental health issues that landed them in prison in the first place.

The play explores the circumstances and events leading up to Glory's incarceration, and eventual death, from three points of view: her mother's, a female prison guard's ; who was present at the time of  Glory's death and Glory's own.

It is the gift of Thompson's writing and performance, and the restrained direction of Gass that allows the audience to empathize with all of the characters. While some of the transitions between scenes were a bit awkward, each character was clear in both the writing and the acting. Gass has given the three characters their own space, which helps clarify and highlight the differences between them.

I saw a grief stricken and enraged mother, a prison guard with a long, sad family history working in the corrections system, and a mentally disturbed girl, ostracized in solitary confinement, who has escaped into a world of fantasy as a refuge from her pain and isolation.  Glory imagines her birth mother as an alligator luring her to a swamp, a poetic allusion to the genetic set-up that perhaps, at least partially determines her fate.

The design (set and costumes by Astrid Janson, lighting by Andre du Toit, sound by Debashis Sinha and projections by Cameron Davis) was brilliant, allowing the actor to interact with the set, creating the sensations of Glory's inner life, and making palpable both the abuse she endured in custody, and her tragic death.

While the structure of the play allows the individual points of view of the characters to be explored in depth, it affords very little interaction or development of the relationships between the characters.

To really explore the tragedy that unfolds, I needed to see the darker side of the personalities of all of the characters, and, how those darker nuances played out in the conflicts in their respective relationships.  For the most part, that didn't happen.

We see the guards watch Glory kill herself. We never see even a glimpse of what it is about Glory's behaviour that turned her into a pariah in prison. Glory's mother idolizes her verbally, but we never see them interact.

There's some beautiful writing here, some very fine acting and a heart-felt exploration of the tragedy of this situation. WATCHING GLORY DIE has the bones of a great play, but it is the wrong kind of subject for a one-woman show. 

Ashley Smith was a physically imposing, socially difficult girl.  She was adopted as a baby and relentlessly bullied at school.  She was diagnosed variously with 'oppositional defiant disorder", "borderline personality disorder" and "sadism".  Her initial incarceration was for throwing crab apples at a postal worker in a small Cape Breton town. A six month sentence in juvenile detention turned into six years of incarceration because of Ashley's pathological inability to stop acting out. In prison, Ashley Smith smeared feces on the walls, covered the cameras and windows in her cell, masturbated and auto-asphyxiated in front of the guards. She strangled herself many times a day.  She assaulted and spit on staff. She took obvious pleasure in hurting people.  I sure as hell didn't see that kid onstage today.  I saw a high-spirited, slightly awkward girl who drifted into delusion under stress. What actually happened is a lot more complex than that.

As it is currently structured, the play is too much of rant against the prison system, and not enough of an exploration of the kinds of questions the Ashley Smiths of the world invite us to consider.

How does someone get to be like Ashley in the first place? As a society, how do we offer equal protection under the law to people who repulse and enrage and exasperate and defy and disgust us?  What, if anything, can we as a society, do for someone hell-bent on destroying  both themselves and any constructive relationship they're offered?  How do we love and care for someone who refuses care, and is determined to be unlovable? When does tough love/not enabling, that is, not rewarding bad behaviour with support or attention- become abuse?

Thompson is a brilliant writer, and a fine actress but I'm not sure this was the best way to tackle such complex material.

The treatment of mentally ill people in custody is a topic worthy of exploration.  WATCHING GLORY DIE is worth seeing for what it is:  a valiant and artistically beautiful, if flawed attempt to look at the mentally ill in prison with sensitivity and compassion.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A warm and funny BINGO! at The Factory Theatre ends the 13/14 Season

Last night,  I went with a friend of a similar vintage to see Daniel MacIvor's BINGO! about a 30 year high school graduating class reunion in a small town in Cape Breton.

Five former friends hook up for a booze-fueled weekend of shared reminisces, regression and regrets. As they approach 50, the reunion confronts them with both the depreciating amount of time left on their clocks, and the limitations aging is beginning to impose on their bodies, and their dreams.

The play starts off  in a hotel suite, with three guys from the class: Nurk, Doogie and Heffer playing bingo, a drinking game in which the first person to throw up, wins.

Doogie (David Keeley) is a big, good-looking, douchey ex-jock, a self-important bully, who sells real estate. Doogie flaunts his trappings of success:  his looks, his marriage to a trophy wife, two kids to brag about, though he prefers the boy to the girl, a job where he makes a lot of money, without much of an education, or getting his hands dirty.  There's trouble in paradise though:  Doogie is on the edge of being turfed from his marriage for lying, and, we suspect, cheating on his no longer impressed spouse.

Heffer (Dov Mikelson) is Doogie's side-kick, and punching bag: a short, slightly over-weight guy ,not smart enough to get into university, or motivated enough to leave his small town.  Heffer has taken the one down seat in every relationship he's ever had, including his marriage.

Nurk (nicely played by John Beale) is a smart, thoughtful guy who got an engineering degree, and a good job in Calgary, in unsexy waste management.  His marriage has recently ended in divorce.

Nurk wins the first round of bingo. Once the lads are loaded for bear, they head to the bar to find the girls, Boots (a terrific Jane Spidell) and Bitsy (the wonderful Sarah Dodd) who never married,and never left town.  Are they lesbians, or just unlucky in love?

High school reunions are about comparing your life against the lives of the people you grew up with. 
Did you win or lose?  Does it matter, and if it does, who and what determines what "winning" looks like, within the confines of that old school-room you left a long time ago?

As the girls stand around in the bar, waiting for the party to start, Boots, a forthright, crusty woman and career mail carrier tells her shy, underdog friend, Bitsy that she looks desperate because she's dancing alone.  "What if I am desperate?" Bitsy replies. 

There's a lot of this kind of smart, observational humour and some wonderful monologues.  Watch for the scene where the two women, neither wearing their glasses at the outset, try to see who's arrived at the party.  Hilarious.

Keeley and Mickelson pushed a bit hard for laughs off the top of the show but as they relaxed and joined the rest of the ensemble, the laughs became more intrinsic and less forced and all the other emotions evoked by MacIvor's script became apparent.

The night wears on, more shots and beers get downed, a cassette player and a bag of tapes comes out, defenses go down and we see and hear much more of the truth about the former classmates' lives.

BINGO! is a gentle, well-written and well-played light romantic comedy, capably directed by Factory co-artistic director Nigel Shawn-Williams. Williams makes great use of music from the period of this gang's youth to evoke all the feelings and memories that old music arouses for both the characters and the audience.

The unified set by Lindsay Anne Black is simultaneously a hotel suite, a boardwalk and a bar.  It clearly creates different playing spaces with the help of a good lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. The set made good use of the breadth of the stage but I did wish it had made better use of the soaring vault of the Factory.  Perhaps in a piece that is largely about failed hopes and diminished expectations, a lower ceiling was an artistic choice.

High school has been over for all of these people for a long time. What is left to hope for after 50?  Well that depends on how you've lived your life and what you're prepared to risk or change on the back nine of the game. MacIvor ends the play hopefully, at least for some of the characters.

In the program notes, MacIvor said he wrote this show for his brother back in Cape Breton.  He wanted to write an approachable piece that spoke to the working stiffs he grew up with.

He clearly knows these people and he paints them with his usual trenchant wit and clear eye but also with much empathy and affection. It's a kinder, gentler MacIvor than I'm used to, but I didn't mind that at all. As he said in ARIGATO TOKYO, "none of us are one thing." I hope his brother liked his present.  I certainly did.

Anyone over 40 who has ever endured one of these "homecoming" weekends - or avoided them like the plague, is bound to enjoy BINGO! The FACTORY is ending a turbulent season on a high note.