Russ Hunt's Reviews

Happy City
by Len Falkenstein

Theatre Free Radical / University of New Brunswick Theatre
Fredericton, September 2003

The remounting of Len Falkenstein's epic of urban renewal, Happy City, as part of a tour to the Vancouver Fringe Festival, has given local theatre folks a second chance to see what is surely one of the most intelligently written and challenging plays to have come out of Fredericton.

The production has not been changed dramatically. My review of the productions last summer (one at the NotaBle Acts festival, and a slightly modified version at the Black Box in the fall) stands: I liked the show very much then, and I like it as much now.

Two actors out of the cast of five are new to this production, but the fundamental shape of their roles has not changed; Len Falkenstein's firm direction is apparent in the similarities between Matthew Spinney's Mehmet and the character we saw played ( named Raj then) by Devin Luke last year; and Karen Lizotte's Maria-Calixta is quite similar in style of movement and in the shaping of her speeches to the interpretation of the role by Sarah Jeffries. In this version, as at the festival version last year, Falkenstein takes the role of the Junkyard Percussionist (and a number of other minor, unnamed roles at various points); though his percussion kit is a little more elaborate, his role in the play remains the same -- to punctuate, point, and underscore the dialogue (in very much the same way the cello worked in his Manifesto of two years ago).

There are some differences, not all improvements. I respect the choice to make the urban planner, here called Mehmet, frenetic and overexcited even in his first appearance as a lecturer explaining the nature of the city, but the way last year's production began, with a bone-chilling contrast between the smooth, facile, confident lecture at the opening and the appearance,a moment later, of the same character ravaged by the degeneration of Creuzfeld-Jakobs disease, seems to me an unalloyed loss. I see that it makes as much sense(we've all known cases of brain degeneration -- mostly Alzheimer's -- where the patient becomes more as she was before, a parody of herself), but I still regret the shock of that revelation: What's happened here? How could such a wonderful organism become such a wreck? On the other hand, Lizotte's slightly more butch and less seductive take on the would-by cyborg superhero, Maria Calixta, may render her even more sympathetic in her last scene where she confesses that it's all really a fantasy.

The performances of Marissa Robinson and Josef Addleman, however, have sharpened, focused and gained intensity since last year; it seems clear that coming back to the roles and then performing them again a number of times in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a festival have not dulled their intepretations and cooled them out to a mechanical neatness. (This in spite of the fact that Robinson was clearly suffering from a cold Thursday night.) The central scene between the two of them, in which Ambrose rescues her from traffic on the expressway, and she, thinking she's been attacked,s creams for help while overpowering him and beginning to bang his head on the floor, still screaming, is tightly choreographed, funny, and moving.And the ending of the scene, when he picks her up like the dead birds he's been "rescuing," is touching and comic at the same time.

Similarly, the "crowd scenes," in which, with the help of a backlit screen on which silhouettes can be seen, the five actors seem like a dozen or fifteen, are even more tightly choreographed and convincing.

It's still true, as I thought last time, that the drunken philosophical conversation in the graveyard while the city burns around them is just too long (again, I see why Falkenstein doesn't want to let go of those ideas, but you can feel the tension in the audience loosening as the discussion goes on). And, as often in Falkenstein's plays, there are too many monologues. Oddly, though, I find myself not objecting as much as I would expect. This is partly because of the density of the language, partly because of the quality of the acting, and partly because there are just so many different kinds of monologues. One, for instance --in a long scene between Mehmet and Marie-Celeste -- is a kind of hybrid, dialogue spoken as though it were monologue, with the characters facing away from each other, as though this were a scene they'd been through so many times it had stopped being dialogue.

But something else that's still true is that it's a mesmerizing, thoughtful evening of theatre, one that repays as much attention as you can give it.The playing with recurrent images and ideas, and the embodying of those themes in dramatic action, and the headlong speed and tightness of the production, is a remarkable achievement.

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