by Len Falkenstein
Theatre UNB / Theatre Free Radical
It's pretty rare to come across a new play that cares seriously about ideas and at the same time exhibits much sympathy for its characters and their ideas. It's even rarer to find one that works out ways to present the characters and their ideas so that they become more than discursive explanation or debate (the old George Bernard Shaw problem). So as Len Falkenstein's Manifesto unfolded at UNB's Memorial Hall I found myself smiling broadly at each new turn in the play's intelligent and finely textured script, hearing (and seeing) echoes and themes returning which demanded and repaid attention.
What I found most engaging about the script was the way it actually achieved ambivalence, walking a knife-edge between postmodern skepticism about everything and neo-Romantic longing for heroism and certainty in what's referred to at least once as a "post-heroic" world, and in the process still retaining our sympathy for the characters who embody and struggle with the issues.
That's all pretty abstract, and what I liked as much was the way Falkenstein embodied his ideas in people and concrete situations. The plot (if we can call it that) resists summary, but the basic situation involves two main characters, both of whom are doing "research" in a library. Thomas Fryman is a history professor who believes he's on the verge of a monumental rediscovery of an almost forgotten revolutionary from the twenties and thirties named Szianovsky; "Rox" is a passionate anarchist, planning a coup (an assassination, it seems) against a vice president of Pfizer Chemicals as a protest against the company's refusal to donate anti-AIDS drugs to African countries, and at the same time working as a researcher for the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation, uncovering evidence that an elderly neighbour of Fryman's is actually a war criminal. They meet in a library, not quite by accident ("Rox," we eventually discover, is pretty clearly manipulating Tom to get near enough to her war criminal to get a picture of him), and the relationship which develops is what drives the rest of the play.
But what makes the play work as an evening of theatre (well, a short evening; the play is a longish one-acter) is much more immediate even than this. The show is mounted with a bare minimum of props -- two folding screens, an overhead projector on a cart, a bit of railing and a cello. I think that's it. With that, the company of four manages to pull off an utterly engrossing evening of cross- and inter-cut scenes, moving from Tom delivering lectures to Szianovsky playing Russian roulette and contemplating his life, to Rox organizing the assassination to a wonderful dream sequence in which Tom interrupts a lecture and announces his love for Rox to the assembled audience, dragging her up to the platform and performing a wonderful, absurdist pas de deux with the overhead projector which will never let you think about plugging in that particular appliance in the same way again.
I particularly admired the way the overhead projector was used between scenes. For instance, Tom's delivering his lecture, with projections on one screen and, as he goes off, swings the projector round so that its light hits the other screen, and Rox, arriving as though the projector were waiting for her, slaps her transparency down and begins explaining her plan. Or the way the same projector was used from the back of the screens to project an appropriate background -- the front door of Tom's house or a prison window. In my view, this kind of imagination is what makes theatre better than any movie: as much of one's engagement in the experience here is with the telling as with the tale.
All four actors, furthermore, were excellent. Extraordinarily different, and excellent in different ways.
Tara Simmonds, for instance, provided a sort of fifth character in her cello, which ushered us in with strange grating phrases and snatches of what often sounded like twelve-tone music, and during the performance supplied a kind of soundscape and background, participating in speeches (like a number of Tom's lectures) as a kind of musical dialogue-partner and punctuation. Simmonds herself played a number of roles with confidence and skill -- most notably Szianovsky's wife Ileana.
Len Falkenstein was a startlingly concentrated and focused Szianovsky, staring at the floor and playing a kind of mock Russian roulette (well, we don't know it's not real until almost the end, when he confesses that, yes, the gun is loaded with blanks), and standing in front of the screen while Tom identifies him as a picture of Szianovsky. His intensity gave the play a kind of focus, and perhaps explained why Tom should be so fascinated with him.
Josef Addleman, though obviously (and admittedly) far too young to play the middle-aged professor obsessed with rehabilitating, and making into a hero, this forgotten revolutionary -- and, not incidentally, making his own academic reputation -- made us believe and even care for the hapless academic. His nervousness around the overhead, practicing his lecture for the upcoming academic conference where he hopes to astound everyone with his discoveries, his ineffectual yearning for the young, alienated anarchist, his innocence and his inability to shut up about his work are all completely convincing. He's obviously watched dotty, boring academics with some sympathy.
Ntara Curry is an astonishingly intense and physically compelling Rox. Graceful and powerful, with stage presence to burn, she has an appraisingly seductive glance that makes you understand why Tom would fall for her, even though it's clear from the beginning that she's manipulating him. She does a super parody of an opera singer and another of a ballerina; she radiates skeptical hostility as Tom obliviously rambles on about modern self-indulgent radicals and demonstrators; she makes us believe in the self-contradictory ambivalence of her position and ideas.
The texture of the script is part of the reason, I think, I didn't find myself seeing the characters as inconsistent or unbelievable: the way ideas and motifs are woven into the structure -- most important, probably, the recurring image of people in comas, somewhere between sleep and death, separated from us and completely out of touch, yet somehow now quite gone beyond recall. The richness of the patterning made me more likely to see everything as meaningful, even the unlikely discovery about Szianovsky's later career or Tom's even more unlikely fate.
It remains true, though, that Memorial Hall is a powerfully difficult venue. I couldn't help wishing I could see the play somewhere else -- at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, where it debuted earlier this summer, perhaps, or at the Neptune second stage in Halifax, where it was to go next. The way the height of the stage separates the action and the characters from the audience may have had the consequence of making us see them more as symbols and less as people; I wonder if I'd have felt warmer about them in another house.