Russ Hunt's Reviews

four one-act plays by Fredericton playwrights

Theatre St. Thomas
The Black Box, April 5-8 2004

If, as I said in an article about the Summer Theatre Festival last summer, it takes a village to raise a theatre, it also seems, on the evidence of the four plays presented at the Black Box at the end of the academic year, that a campus can do the job pretty well.

As a culmination of perhaps the richest year of theatre there has ever been on the joint UNB-STU campus, these four productions represent, I think, a kind of coming of age of a theatre culture that has been growing slowly and sporadically for a couple of decades. There are a number of considerations that evidence that maturity.  Playwrights don't grow in isolation from theatres and theatrical activity: theatre is a community endeavour, and you don't write a play unless there's a community around you who not only care about theatre, but are likely to have the resources to put it on and be able to tap an audience who'll appreciate it. Other forms of writing are different because their support communities aren't so physical: the people who are going to care about your novel are probably hundreds of miles from you while you're writing it. Similarly, directors and stage managers and lighting and sound designers and technicians need not only practice, but also support from others doing the same thing, and the chance to see each other's work and learn from it -- and to share with others the limitations and advantages of the shared workspaces and technology. Actors need to see each others' work, to work with each other, to see lots of productions and participate in others, to get their hands dirty backstage and in the lighting booth.  And everybody needs a chance to take everybody else's role from time to time.

We've just gone through a year which began with that summer festival, and saw productions of new plays by Len Falkenstein and a number of other local writers, as well as a number of standard scripts, from Mother Courage and Loot to Arcadia and Romeo and Juliet, and included shows at the Playhouse, not just by TNB (whose Vinci was the kind of authentic theatre with a reasonable budget that form an alternative to campus theatre, rather than an attempt to supersede it), but also by touring companies -- Nova Scotia's Two Planks and A Passion (Halo) and Bunnies in the Headlights (Cherry Docs), as well as Edmonton's Catalyst Theatre (The Blue Orphan). All this activity forms a kind of seedbed in which projects like 78 can take root and flourish, where playwrights can have the confidence to get to work on a one-acter, where directors can be sure that they can find the physical resources and the people to enable them to realize their visions, where you can round up a group of over thirty people during the last few weeks of classes, and where, in the last week of classes -- including the very last night, after all classes are over and you'd expect campus to have emptied out -- you can fill the Black Box with an audience of people who aren't there just because theatre needs life support, but because they want to experience more of what's going on.

The four plays which made up 78 are very different from each other. Two are large, ebullient plays with an edge of satire; two are small, even intimate studies of relationships and character.  Two are very strongly Maritime- or even Fredericton-influenced; two address larger issues.  Two were full of broad comedy and slapstick and clowning; two required tight discipline and close attention.  All, however, received loving productions from the stage and lighting resources of the Black Box and the technical people.

Opening the evening was Social Science, a broad and ambitious satirical piece by Jordan Trethewey, premised on a sort of lecture-cum-press-conference in which the representative of a genetics and sociology enterprise (Angélique Wojcik) stridently and shrilly presents and defends her firm's "revolutionary" discoveries about men and women and their genetic and social makeup to a group of skeptical and obstreperous journalists, who interrupt and challenge her presentation at every turn. Her "audio-visual aids" are three couples who, on cues from her remote, appear in pairs and respond simultaneously to unasked questions about men and women, and then, as though they were videos the sociologist was showing, act out short scenes which she claims (over the contemptuous dismissals and hostility of the journalists, from their seats in the audience) are significant and typical evidence of male-female relationships.  Having the couples begin standing back to back and speaking over each other in bursts made, of course, a neat satiric point; and -- when the timing worked precisely -- was occasionally very funny.  But often the timing didn't work so well, so that neither of the pair could be understood, and it was simply the idea itself that was funny -- and that joke doesn't last all that long.  It was fortunate that the last couple -- played by Ryan Griffith and Jennifer Roberge-Renaud -- had the best timing.  All three of the exemplifying couples were solid as the caricatures they were asked to be (perhaps Ryan Griffith -- in spite of the fact that his character was supposed to be sixty-seven, but looked, well, eighty-seven -- was the most nuanced and funny), and the three journalists were appropriately annoying.  If there was a problem, it seemed to me to lie in the premise: it was never clear what the situation was actually supposed to be.  An academic paper (which this looked rather like) wouldn't have an audience of journalists, and any presentation wouldn't have been interrupted every few moments by a journalist jumping up and challenging the speaker's premises or demanding to know how much the research cost or pointing out that it lacked validity. I assume that the reason director John Barlow and Wojcik decided to give the speaker a near-hysterical, shrill delivery was to exaggerate the situation and make it seem less intended to be realistic, but I wasn't sure it worked. Nor was I certain that the ending was much more than a coming to the end of the material. Still, there were moments of theatrical magic -- Matthew Arévelo-Carpenter as the young husband letting his pregnant wife think he's cooking dinner by clinking a spoon in a bowl while stealthily lifting the take-out bags from behind the counter, or Ruthie Lakin seducing her lout of a boyfriend into taking out a gym membership rather than buying a Gameboy.

Next up, after a swift, efficient scene change, was Ilk, a play about four young men at loose ends in Woodstock, elegantly and sensitively written by Ryan Griffith, and played to a fare-thee-well by a remarkable group of young actors. What was perhaps most striking about the piece was the efficient and polished structure of the script, and the blocking of it by director Linda McNutt.  The opening sequence established the convention: the lights came up on Steve (laconically and negligently passive, as played by Mark Harris), his foot up on a kitchen table, drawing on a beer and flicking the cap over to knock a loose cap off a bottle on the table.  Blackout. Lights up, across the stage, on Dave, meditating in a long, extremely funny monologue about his disastrous life -- dropped out of school, broke, lonely and increasingly suspicious that he's quite possibly not a writer after all.  Nick Cobham's portrayal of Dave makes him as sympathetic and as neatly comic a character as I've seen on stage in some time.  As he decides that, well, there's not enough money to get as far as Mexico, but perhaps it could take him as far as Woodstock (an hour up the river, and home), he turns and says, "sometimes you need . . . " and steps through a freestanding door as the lights come up on the kitchen to greet  Nick, still slouched at the kitchen table. This convention is maintained through the piece, as new characters appear.  They include Mike, an aspiring journalist who's been exiled to Woodstock (also his home) as part of his journalism program (Dan McGrattan, in a remarkably skillful comic take, limited, perhaps, in his range of gesture, but spot-on in his timing), and Carl, a loutish, warm-hearted tough guy (played by Josh Frances as a sort of World-Wide-Wrestling version of a country oaf with a good heart). The level of comic dialogue Griffith has produced, and the deadly timing with which the four presented it (not to mention the neatly timed knockabout slapstick) kept the audience laughing pretty much constantly -- and yet, at the last, when we return to Dave in monologue, under the overhead light, and we hear him thinking aloud about how much difference going home and being with "others of his ilk" has made, Griffith's script attains a kind of warmth, while avoiding sentimentality, that is rare in young writers. If there were occasional strange decisions about blocking -- at one point Mike is sitting with his back to everyone else, talking over his shoulder and squirming in his chair to make eye contact, and if there was a reason for it it was lost on me -- in general, the movement about the kitchen, out onto the porch, and in and out of the monologue spotlight used the space efficiently and engagingly.

Linda McNutt's elegant two-hander, Rubber Handed Bastard, is a study of grief and deepening relationship which is so funny that -- except for a few moments -- you hardly notice those are its themes. The main character, Miranda, is attempting to deal with her inconsolable grief over the loss of her father two years earlier, and has hit upon the crackpot idea of holding a second funeral -- this time doing it right, she thinks -- to "get closure."  As played by the resourceful and dependable (not to mention sparkling) Marissa Robinson, Miranda is a remarkable creation: brittle, witty, cynical, and always on the edge of hysteria.  If occasionally her desperate volubility meant that the language went by so quickly we missed a good deal, it was easy to see why Robinson (and director Jordan Trethewey) chose to take that risk. The sympathy it earned was appropriately channeled through the local undertaker with the unlikely name of Job, played by Carl Dalton as a warm, sympathetic, solid and vulnerable young man, coping with his attraction to this strange and incomprehensible creature and at the same time trying talk a little sense into her. What was perhaps most remarkable about the piece was its setting: both characters were constantly occupied with business -- mixing martinis, sorting through vinyl records, reorganizing things -- and yet we were never distracted (well, except perhaps once: I wondered, when Miranda put a vinyl copy of the Beatles' White Album on the portable record player and dropped the tone arm on the groove, why we didn't hear anything). What the actions and the engagement with props and the wonderful blocking -- they were never still, but the movement never seemed pointless -- did was to keep the play from seeming, as might otherwise have happened, a nice short story which just happened to be put on stage.

Finally, the evening was rounded off with Route 78, an over-the-top, ramshackle satire by John Barlow, full of exaggeration, surreal characters and inspired clowning (along with a bit of martial-arts conflict reminiscent of the Theatre St. Thomas Romeo a month ago). The improbable premise is that, at an about-to-be-bypassed truck stop, a desperate young man from the area rushes in, pursued, we discover, by a hired killer intending to rub him out for a unpaid debt (the hapless young man, played with brilliant panicky fervor by Matthew Dinan, has dug himself into a hole by trying, amateurishly, to cook up some crystal meth in his uncle's garage, destroying both his borrowed capital and his uncle in the process). The killer, played with wonderfully malignant enthusiasm by Aimee Christie, arrives, threatens everyone, clocks Milo, and engages in exceptionally energetic martial arts combat with Zoey, the waitress at the truck stop.  Amazingly, Zoey, who, until this point, had been presented by Lisa Cameron as a fairly sweet, understanding server of inexplicably free coffees, turns out to be not only adept enough to kill the killer, but to have inadvertently been the cause of death of a number of other people (something about all this kept reminding me of the Coen Brothers).

The rest of the play, which bring in a series of increasingly outrageous characters -- is organized around everyone's attempt to solve the problem of the dead killer on the floor of the truck stop. The people involved turn out to include Zoey's not particularly honest policeman brother (Julian Christie), her irascible and decisive mother, a judge (Laurie Jones), and, most important for the laughter if not for the plot, a local politician (Andrew Estabrooks) and the owner of the truck stop (Mark Savoie). The inspired clowning of Savoie and Estabrooks, and of Dinan, as Milo, are almost enough to make you forget that the last half of the play really has only the often very funny dialogue and the physical comedy to keep it going. I was reminded, frequently, of plays by George F. Walker where the texture of the dialogue is wonderful but you keep wanting someone to get on with the plot.  Laurie Jones, for instance, was in a position where she needed, over and over, to be decisive without actually making any decisions, like a character from one of Walker's East End plays. Had Estabrooks and Savoie not only had lots of great lines -- "First thing a politician learns.  Don't get caught with a dead girl or a live boy" -- but also, even more, lots of great slapstick, the show might have lost its audience.  As it was, we were with them all to the end.

A fitting end, in fact, to a pretty powerful year of theatre on campus and in Fredericton: and, one can hope, a promise that next year might be even better.

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