Russ Hunt's Reviews

A Stable Base
by Jordan Trethewey

Theatre Saint Thomas / Punching Ptarmigan Productions
Fredericton, November 2003

Theatre is the art of making everything deliberate.  The magic comes, in large part, from creating what we might call a "sacred space," a defined area in which there are no accidents, where everything's meaningful. Of course, in practice it never happens (only in movies can you do a retake when a hair's out of place), but the trick in being an audience is to attend as though everything were deliberate, and put off for as long as you can the realization that, well, some important things aren't really all that coherently constructed: there are things that are just accidents, or weren't planned.  You need to adjust your expectations and enjoy what's done well and excuse what isn't. If you do, it can be an enjoyable experience, but it can take some work.

A case in point is the Black Box production of Jordan Trethewey's A Stable Base. Everybody involved is learning, and everybody involved gives it her best shot. An ambitious set, some pretty listenable and interesting original music, the Black Box's effective lighting, and committed performances by a young and energetic cast add up to an hour and a quarter's pretty watchable theatre.  I especially liked the projection of almost every member of the cast: the Box is a difficult space, and theatre with the audience on three sides of you is notoriously difficult. This was a problem that had clearly been addressed, and solved.

Nick Coates is strong as the young man, the center of the play, who is going home to his beloved grandfather's funeral, and remembering, in flashback while on the plane, scenes from his long relationship with the old man.  If he isn't clear about exactly how young he is supposed to be in the first scene (it felt to me like he varied between about three and ten), he nonetheless finds ways to make it absolutely clear when he transforms into his younger self; and as a young adult he is disciplined, focused, and convincing.  Similarly, both Mark Savoie and Lillian Drysdale, as the young man's grandparents, do creditable jobs of focusing and delivering their characters, although, again, they seem to age at rather inconsistent rates: the grandfather's decline is well punctuated, for instance, but he seems to walk with pretty much the same degree of difficulty through the production.  James Corbett as the phantom passenger who listens to the young man's stories is properly attentive, though I was never convinced that his gravelly voice was an effective way to signal his age.  Lisa Baker as the young man's girl friend is properly polite, warm and bewildered, and Tiffany Roberts is a convincing stewardess (I especially liked the fake smile as she surveyed the cabin to make sure everyone had their seat belts fastened preparatory to landing).  And Stephen Taylor as the voice of the pilot sounds quite like the pilots I've heard, though what he said wouldn't ring very true to an experienced air traveler.

The premise of the play is a promising one, and the idea that a young man might have a genuinely positive relationship with his grandparents is certainly worth approving of.  Unfortunately, there needs to be an element of conflict or discovery (or, ideally, both) to generate an audience's interest in the course of what's going on on stage, and Trethewey and the cast don't provide us with much of either. Had the young man discovered in the course of the play that what he thought was an unpleasant relationship actually was pretty positive, or had we seen, through the course of the flashbacks, a turning point in the relationship, there would have been some development to hang our interest on; unfortunately, the scenes didn't add up to such a structure.  Indeed, each gave us more of the relationship between the grandparents and the young man, but even there there wasn't much acknowledgment of what we (or the young man) might be learning.  Nor does he have much to say to his seatmate that suggests the kind of growth in understanding or change in the relationship that an audience is looking for.

As it turns out, what we have to be interested in and engaged by is simply the relationship, and while there certainly was warmth and humor in it -- the opening night audience was especially amused by the grandfather's reaction when the young man showed up for Christmas with his ears pierced -- it wasn't enough to compensate for the lack of other structure.

There are further problems having to do with consistency of conventions. Moving back and forth from the young man and his seatmate on the airplane and the memory flashbacks is an interesting idea, but there is no established convention whereby the move is achieved.  It is simply a matter of waiting till Coates gets out of his seat, climbs down the stairs to the main stage, adjusts his costume, and enters as a child or adolescent. Were these transitions consistent and stylized they would be far more effective, and would not have the unfortunate effect of simply casting the audience adrift to wait for the next scene to start. (This was perhaps especially a problem while the airplane was disassembled and the funeral home put in its place, just before the very last scene.)  I was surprised not, at least, to have had the scene changes filled by the quite listenable music, composed for this production, but which we hear almost none of..

Perhaps more serious is the inconsistency around the mechanics of the production. The set is very ambitious, including lots of realistic props, like a working table saw and a convincing wood pile. But the play isn't, after all, a realistic one, and in many case the realistic props are used in unrealistic ways. Though Grandpa turns the table saw on and sticks the wood into the blade, he doesn't actually make the piece he produces, or even mime making it; similarly, though the woodpile looks real, the stacking job that Keith does is completely perfunctory and unrealistic: under his grandfather's tutelage, he still starts the end pile in a random location (the grandfather doesn't point this out) and actually doesn't have sticks of wood that can stack, so the dialogue in both cases is oddly at variance with what we're actually looking at.  Are we to take the settings as realistic, or as simply signs of what we're to believe? No consistent convention is established. There are similar problems with the airplane (where the stewardess goes and comes from, and where Keith enters and exits, seem quite random) and the family kitchen: though the kitchen is realistic, Grandma is regularly seated facing the audience, her back to the people she's actually talking to: if it's a real kitchen, it seems clear, she should act in it as though it were, and sit where she'd sit in that real kitchen, at the table facing Keith. The sandwich she makes is a real one -- however, the language suggests that it's a hamburger, not a sandwich. Are we to notice?

Similarly, there are difficulties with the realism of the dialogue.  I've mentioned that the pilot doesn't say what pilots actually say; it's also true, however, that what he says isn't a contribution to the action or our understanding of it (it's not clear why we need the pilot's voice, except to establish that we're in an airplane). At one point, early in the conversation with his seatmate, Keith says, "but I must be boring you."  Since he's hardly said anything, it seems an unlikely thing to day, but there's no obvious justification for the line.

Every time such a convention is violated, the audience is reminded that we're having to make the adjustment, and we're pulled out of the play and reminded of the company, the director, and the choices both are making. Such inconsistencies accumulate to make the sacred, intentional space far more difficult to posit.

In spite of such problems, the play and its crew show promise and dedication, and the experience is engaging, interesting, and not infrequently entertaining.

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