Russ Hunt's Reviews

Thirteen Plays in Eleven Days

NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival
July - August 2005

For people in the Fredericton area who think drama is a uniquely important and engaging art form, Fredericton's annual summer stage binge, the NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival, is an unparalleled opportunity to participate intimately in it. The Festival's not about the glitzy, high-tech polished shows, as much like movies as possible, that often drive theatre in larger centres: it's about the local, the immediate, the utterly unique. "You're not ever going to see this again," it says every second: "pay attention." Whether it's good or not, whether it's bedevilled by technical glitches or seems a desperate attempt to make a script that isn't really ready for prime time into one that commands attention; whether it's an instant of triumph or an hour of aching suspense, it's the only time this is ever going to happen. And it's happening among a community of people who share a passion for those highly wrought, unique moments.

The Festival is also not about innovation, radical novelty, and experimentation (though there is some of that). Unlike many drama festivals, it's not competitive, even informally, and it's not about separate companies bringing their shiny new productions to show off to each other. It's about that community of people working together on each others' plays.

Perhaps even more important is that the festival is about the evolution of those plays. No performance is intended to be seen as the last word, as a final product. It's a second of arc, a photo of a process, a moment in a flux. All the plays -- even those fully mounted as a full evening -- are still being collaborated on as we watch. By the author, who's still around, the dramaturge, who's in the audience, the director and cast and crew, and the audience, whose participation is perhaps the single most crucial element of the festival -- not only in the form of the written responses the organizers invite, and the questions and responses expressed in the discussions after performances with the cast and crew, but also, and most important, simply in being there and responding during the show. As I've often argued in discussions of how we learn to write and speak (and we all do continue to learn that, long after we think of ourselves and learners and students), we don't learn by practicing in isolation. We learn by participating in live, authentic social transactions. Just like the ones that happened in the Black Box and at the Tannery Stage and in the back room at Rye's Deli over the almost two weeks of the festival's run this year.

Drama is, I'd argue, even more about (and dependent on) collaborative endeavor than music, and both are far more social enterprises than the other classic art forms like graphic art and sculpture and literature. None of course, is entirely individual -- writers have other writers, editors, audiences, publishers; painters have patrons, art dealers, material suppliers, other artists, audiences . . . but when we imagine Picasso in his studio or Alice Munro at her keyboard, we think of what they're doing as a solo product. We don't think of musicians that way -- even the solo virtuoso usually plays music someone else has written, and plays in a location that's been arranged by agents and entrepreneurs and institutions, and plays for an audience. It's even more difficult to think of anyone involved in drama as working in splendid isolation. You might sit alone at your desk to write the text for a one-act play to be entered in the Festival's competition, but by the time the audience sees the play and we get to the discussion of it afterward, you might well say -- as Patrick Toner did after the performance of his ¿Donde Esta mi Cerveza? -- that you were surprised to find that the play was actually about the linguistic isolation of unilingual New Brunswickers, and that it was more a comedy than he'd imagined. You might well find that the play had been shaped by a dramaturge, changed by a director, altered again by an actor's discovery of readings of lines that you hadn't thought of, and become something you'd only distantly anticipated as an audience responded to it.

All of these issues are front and centre at this festival. And of course, so are the fundamental structural tensions which always underlie theatre. Putting on a play is always a tension between a whole range of contending forces and needs-- for instance, between the need to amuse, please, and engage the audience right now and the need to build something longer, to connect, stretch out, and tantalize. These aren't simple oppositions: it's not, for example, merely about being intellectual as opposed to being physical, or academic as opposed to entertaining, even though it's often painted that way, and even though it often seems that that's what at stake. Such tensions are particularly evident at a festival conceived as this one is, as a showcase for works in progress, a kind of test track for experiments. We could see them played out, for instance, in both of the one-act plays which were given full productions, ¿Donde Esta mi Cerveza? and Jill Connell's A Dog! A Panic in a Pagoda!

Everyone probably remembers the story of the truckload of beer which disappeared on its way to Mexico from the Moosehead Brewery in Saint John. It was a story which got lots of media attention because of its intrinsic comic value, but which apparently had unrecognized potential as a vehicle for understanding some important things about bilingualism and cultural isolation in New Brunswick. The play which Toner and the company fashioned out of the event was torn between broad comedy -- exemplified by the over-the-top slapstick of Ryan Griffiths and Matt Spinney as various extreme characters like a sadistic Mexican policeman and a Monty-Pythonesque crown attorney, and an unexpectedly comic performance by Vivien Zelazny as a French teacher, a floozy, and a francophone Mountie. The tension was there throughout, as we felt increasing sympathy for the poor protagonist, played by Nicholas Cole as a kind of cross between Doug McKenzie and the Poor Soul, who didn't ever quite understand -- through a whole series of nightmare fantasy sequences -- why it was that what he'd stolen from "Bearskin" breweries wasn't "just a truckload of beer" -- or, even more, why the fact that the beer had Spanish-language labels on the cans made them completely unsalable anywhere. Len Falkenstein, in his dual role as dramaturge and director, had clearly taken the play in the direction of broad farce and bludgeon-school satire, but part of it still remained as a kind of study of how people are isolated by their language -- as the poor students in the French class resist the teacher's insistence that they become someone else (someone who asks to go to the toilet in French, for instance), and poor Ted the truckdriver (Cole) tries hopelessly to understand the legal doubletalk that's going to put him in jail.

Similar tensions could be felt in the second one-act prizewinner, Jill Connell's A Dog! A Panic in a Pagoda! A script which might have been either a broad mad-scientist parody or a fairly sophisticated comedy about sexual mores and ideas in today's society made a pretty strong run at trying to be both -- and showed, at its center, the same affective disconnect between our sympathy toward Hannah (sensitively played by Zita Nyarady), trying to get some help to figure out what's wrong with her relationship with her boyfriend, and our raucous laughter at the hilarious mad sex scientists, Radar (in a wonderful parodic turn by Seann Murray) and his highly-sexed wife/assistant, Volta (Jennifer Roberge-Renaud, exploding with sensuality in fishnet tights). In contrast to ¿Donde Esta mi Cerveza?, which exhibited Len Falkenstein's trademark cleverness with exploiting simple sets and everyday objects to create a world (two chairs up on a table became a wonderful tractor cab, for example), director Caleb Marshall and the crew created a wonderfully baroque and complicated lab for the two scientists, complete with an elaborate reclining board to which subjects can be strapped and wired, and an amazing helmet with flashing lights to display brain activity (both looked vaguely as though they might have been designed by Terry Gilliam). Murray and Roberge-Renaud dominated the show, with their precise timing, their ear for the pretensions of scientific claptrap, and their Marx-brothers style physical comedy. Hannah and her hapless boyfriend (nicely played, and wonderfully danced, by Jeremy Gorman) tended rather to get lost, especially when the soundtrack made their human-level conversations pretty difficult to understand.

In both cases, the broad and immediate seemed ultimately to win out over the longer-term and more reflective possibilities; one wonders will happen to these scripts as their authors now go on to continue the arc of development we saw in the Black Box. Similar questions can be raised about the four other plays which the Festival organizers decided had too much potential simply to be shunted aside. Accordingly, they set up two sets of two readings which were conducted at Rye's Deli during the middle of the festival. The plays were simply read from lecterns, with stage directions and explanatory material read by festival organizer Ilkay Silk; this meant that there could be much less of the movement toward broad physical acting, and so all four plays existed in a space where contemplation rather than engagement was the appropriate response. Even so, one could feel the potential toward violence and physical action in a work like How's It Going, by Jordan Trethewey and Kyle B. Peters, a sort of cross between Albee's Zoo Story and the Monty Python "argument sketch," in which one character insists at gunpoint that that the other is going to engage in a conversation. One the other hand, the most affecting of the four readings, it seemed from the discussions afterward, was Adam Noble's character-driven Infinite Space, where the Hamlet-like main character successively encountered a childhood friend, his dead father, and his competitive sister; unlike the others, it seemed to gain from the setting: on a stage there may have appeared to be a dearth of action, but the conversations as conveyed from the lecterns seemed intriguing and occasionally moving, unlike Step Taylor's Sure They Do, Eugene and Ryan Griffith's Pine, both of which seemed, as read, to allow us rather too much leisure to reflect on issues like plausibility and coherence. Both Taylor's frustrated academic and Griffith's recluse (28 years, it was asserted, on his own in the woods) -- not to mention the faithful piner of Griffith's title, waiting in despair for three decades for the recluse to come to his senses and back to civilization and her arms -- needed, it seemed clear, to be brought forward from the page onto the stage and subjected to the kind of reality check that a director, a cast, and an audience would apply. And yet, even so, the occasion of the readings was as engaging and entertaining as any reading I've been to: lots of solid, thoughtful performances, and lots of useful discussion afterward.

As always, the group of short plays presented at noon downtown in the Tannery were more opportunities for experimentation than anything else. Normally these productions, more than any, change and improve over the course of the week, and unfortunately I only saw them on the first day they were performed, when technical difficulties abounded (nearly destroying the elegant little negotiation between father and daughter in Stephanie Yorke's You, In a Restaurant (father-daughter team Hilary and John Ball had microphone problems that might well have simply stopped a less experienced and dedicated cast). The play which seemed to me to survive the first-day problems best was Sarah MacAulay's Beginning, Middle and End, which appeared to be three separate monologues, and only gradually -- partly under the influence of the carefully-chosen black-red-white color scheme of the costumes -- became connected, as speeches directed at one character, before her birth, during her adolescence, and after her death.

But that, after all, is the nature of this kind of theatre: it works right now, this instant, or it doesn't, and then it's gone forever except in memory. A friend of mine used to say that what he loved most about Shakespeare was the way the action of the play was always shaped so that someone was watching someone else, and we were watching the someone watching, and watching each other watch that. The NotaBle Acts Festival gives us a chance to be part of that: for me, almost as much fun as watching the plays themselves is watching the audience -- which in some measure is always made up of folks from other productions, directors, cast, crew, writers -- thinking how they'd have done it and preparing for the conversations afterward which will shape the future of the works we're seeing and the others we're going to see.

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