Russ Hunt's Reviews

Acting Out
An Evening of One-Act Plays

Notable Acts Summer Theatre Festival
July 29-August 2, 2003

It's billed as a celebration of New Brunswick playwrights, but, oddly, one of the clearest lessons we can learn from the Summer Theatre Festival is that playwrights aren't a lot like other writers: it's very rare for them to work alone, and it's even rarer for their work to look much like what they originally imagined when it finally goes public. Theatre's a social collaborative act, one in which it doesn't seem to be true that too many cooks spoil the broth. You can celebrate playwrights, but unlike, say, poets, they don't work alone.

This is especially clear at a performance like the evening of one-act plays that celebrates the two winners of the festival's competition for the best scripts. What the playwrights won was essentially the right to participate in having their work "workshopped" -- that is, rethought, rewritten, sometimes reimagined. The extent to which this had transformed the texts became clear in the post-production discussion, chaired by Colleen Wagner, which wrapped up the opening evening for the two plays.

The plays, as seen by the opening night audiences, both still had some rough edges, but were both well worth attending to, and well worth collaborating on.

Ryan Griffiths' Take is essentially a conversation between three young friends, one of whom, at the end of his social and financial and emotional rope, is proposing to rob a bank to solve all his problems. The conversation is set in a coffee shop or diner, and the action essentially consists of everyone discovering that nobody is really a movie-style criminal, a person who plans out a complex robbery as though planted on earth for that purpose. These people, fortunately, have lives -- Johnny, played by Matt Goss, has just been dumped by his girlfriend and is devastated; even worse, Billy (Simon Duvall) has a wife and two children and finds the suggestion that he's about to rob a bank unimaginable. Horsfel, the would-be criminal (Kurt Galley) is at first adamant: if they won't help he'll do it alone. But by the end it's clear that what he, too, needs (and has) is a situation full of other people: realizing that the waitress (Terry McKinnon) he's been sketching while waiting for his collaborators is an old acquaintance, his attention shifts to his own, more realistic, life, and it's clear that the vision of some sort of criminal career has vanished.

Often funny (particularly an Abbott & Costello style rapidfire debate about whether "real" criminals call their activities "jobs" or "things"), and occasionally touching, the dialogue is what carries the play. It was unfortunate that a significant amount of it was lost, especially to people seated at the sides, though enough carried to convince us it was worth listening hard. This is partly a problem of blocking for the Black Box -- people need either to move around more than they can while sitting at a table in a cafe, or else to project with real energy and power to make sure people behind them hear, too. Aside from that, the four actors' performances were focused and disciplined. I was worried at the beginning about Kurt Galley as Horsfal, who at first seemed distracted, but who settled in and was especially strong in his dialogue with the waitress, suddenly looking as vulnerable and innocent as we suspected him to be all along.

The evening's second play, Burnt Offerings, written by Sherry Coffey and Ian LeTourneau, was utterly different. Accordingly, director Ron Spurles took an entirely different approach to this work, loading the stage with three props-rich acting spaces -- a main area, a kitchen, where Lorna, the mother of the radically dysfunctional family we're following, collects junk and plans extra rooms to put it in, burns chicken in a microwave, and generally copes valiantly with early senile dementia or perhaps Alzheimer's. As played by Michelle Daigle, Lorna is resolute, aggressively cheerful, and powerfully stubborn (and anchors the production solidly). Off to our left and back is a platform which is the apartment where Lorna's ex-husband (played stolidly Andrew Jones) entertains his children awkwardly; to the right, another which holds son Jack's office. Played with immense energy by Brent Dawes, Jack is just enough of a son to be concerned about his mother's loss of memory, and too frenetically engaged with his job to be aware of his own scattered mind. The daughter, Sheilagh, as played by Meghan Mesheau, has a kind of nervous, angular, brittleness that might easily have been played by a Merryl Streep.

In the midst of all this complex playing space, wandering in the darkness between the starkly-lit defined areas, is T.C. Richards, toting now a Djombe and now a Bhodhran and sometimes a tin whistle, providing incidental music and sound effects (I especially liked his dying teakettle and his cell-phone ring). In some ways it was the staging which dominated and shaped the production: the script itself simply put the family into relations with each other which allowed for some snappy cross-talk and funny, contentious dialogue in an atmosphere of free-floating hostility (at a couple of points I thought of Married with Children). But under Spurles's direction (and, I assume, with the influence of Len Falkenstein's dramaturgy), the play became an engagingly surreal experience, with the audience attending to the conflicts but at the same time laughing at Richards' imitation of an overwrought microwave, or a recorded telephone menu system ("Press one for English . . . ").

Whether we believed that the family's closing all-in argument (rather like an operatic quartet, as they all shout over each other) really achieved closure, or successfully represented a kind of image of what the family really is good at, didn't finally matter much. Like Take -- and like the previous evening's Plastic -- Burnt Offering is a work in progress, and it's wonderful to be part of the process. It's what live theatre, to some extent, is always about, and it's a good thing to see that being made explicit -- while still offering an audience engaging and satisfying experiences.

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