Russ Hunt's Reviews

Free / Fall
by Len Falkenstein

Theatre Free Radical / Theatre St. Thomas
October 2003

As with Happy City a couple of weeks ago, we should be grateful for the opportunity to see again a play which is as challenging and engaging, and as theatrically adventurous, as anything produced in Fredericton in recent memory. My earlier review of Free / Fall (like that of Happy City) stands; I liked it last summer and I liked it more in its very slightly revised form in October; and I have the same reservations.

I've now seen this play three times, and every time I'm more interested in the patterns that are there in the language and ideas, the number of threads that tie it all together. It's amazing to me that Falkenstein can take these absurdly disconnected ideas -- alien abductions, vampires, mosquitoes, kidney transplants, the collapse of the regime in Romania and the destruction of the World Trade Center, the idea of irrational and unfounded fears, adoption and motherhood, dreams vs. reality, etc., etc., and make them all, well, fit together.

I'm not sure it all yet makes sense to me, but when, in the production, I watched the aliens examining Justina to see if she was a suitable host, and then examining Joe and discovering that he had "two kinds of DNA" (because he had a transplanted kidney), I felt that it was all connected to Joe's belief that he'd been converted into a vampire during the night while staying at the Romanian bed and breakfast run by a descendant of Vlad Dracula, and to Justina's anger about mosquitoes. Was it connected? I can't tell you how, but it felt connected.

Maybe one reason was the tightness of the production. If you're experiencing something so well-organized, so thoughtfully assembled, and so skilfully presented, you're much more likely to take seriously things that don't seem at first to belong there. Just the way you'll wait a long time for someone who can really tell a story to connect things for you ("she must have something in mind"), so when you watch those wonderfully appropriate and perfectly timed back-projections, and watch the way props appear and disappear without your noticing, and see how perfectly placed the actors are at just the moment they need to be there, you think, all this effort has to be for something. All this stuff about Justina's mother's family coming from Germany to Romania to Saskatchewan and back, and then back again to Saskatchewan, for instance: you think, "why is she telling us this?" but you think it with the expectation that there's going to be a reasonable answer.

And even when, at the end, you're not clear about what that answer is, you think it'll come clear sometime. There is coherence there; it's just, sometimes, that it's not the kind of coherence it's easy to find words for. Which may be why it's worth writing a play to present it.

And having a cast and crew who have been buffed to a fine polish. All four actors were even better than in the summer. Josef Addleman's Joe was appropriately mystified and open to experience, and even more disciplined physically (I especially liked, every time, his snatching a fly out of the air and eating it, just like Renfield in the classic Bram Stoker versions of Dracula). Marissa Robinson is a wonderful Natalia: cold and wonderfully sullen one moment, sunny and explosive the next, and a magnetic stage presence -- especially the large, expressive hands fluttering around Natalia like birds. Matthew Spinney's Constantin is even more desperately lost, more devastated when he thinks -- and then knows -- that Natalia's not going to settle down in the bed and breakfast with him (and more comically reminiscent of other stage and film vampires when that's necessary). Terry McKinnon, as Justina, still has some trouble with projection in the box, but creates a wonderfully ambiguous character, one we have lots of sympathy for but who still, at the crunch, is the one we want to see lose and yet the one who wins it all. I was reminded yet again of The Caucasian Chalk Circle (surely it's no coincidence -- "don't talk to me about coincidence" -- that the birth mother in the Brecht play was named Natella) and of Charles Mee's Full Circle. The dream knife fight between the two women in the chalk circle over who will get to adopt the girl remained just as gripping the third time I saw it; the choreography was tight and effective. The back-projections were better, more tightly timed, and, at their best, funnier than they were in August, and Jennifer Roberge-Renaud's violin and the bits of recorded music around it were more effective at punctuating and underscoring the dialogue.

I'm still not sure that some of the scenes aren't too long, and I wonder whether the two and a half hour length of the production is really justified; but I remain unclear about how one might cut it. Free / Fall demands attention, for sure -- and it repays it.

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