Russ Hunt's Reviews

Taking it to the Street
Five Short Plays

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

"Outdoor theatre" is often a challenge. The NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival met that challenge on their opening day on the Tannery stage in downtown Fredericton, and wrestled it to a draw.

The challenge, of course, is that in the open air, without the assistance of an acoustically enclosed space, lights, and a sound system, theatre often becomes exaggerated and difficult for an audience to engage with. Actors have to project in powerful ways that limit their range; audiences are distracted by traffic and weather and passersby. It's the sort of situation Shakespeare knew very well.

At the opening performance of a five-day run, the Festival folks decided to compromise, and introduce a sound system onto the open stage, with decidedly mixed results. While having music to bridge the intervals between one short play and the next was an advantage, the miking of the actors caused so many problems that one wondered whether it was worth it. Mikes and transmitters were dropped and fell off of clothing, levels varied suddenly and erratically as a desperate sound technician tried to compensate for the varying distances between mike and mouth, feedback squealed and occasional gusts of wind scraped across the mikes. Whole chunks of some plays disappeared into the technological black hole.

In spite of this, the five short plays and their young casts all showed real potential for engaging an audience, even against the backdrop of the traffic on King Street and the folks wandering through the square wondering what was going on.

The five plays average under ten minutes in length. They include John Ball's Point A to Point B, a surrealistic parallel conversation between an airline stewardess and her bored passenger, passing over New Brunswick, and one between the stewardess and a hiker with a canoe on his head, portaging through the woods below. The stewardess, in an energetic and indomitable performance by Jennifer Roberge-Renaud, struggles through an invisible barrier as she moves from the airliner to the woods, and although I'm not sure how long it took people to know that's what the convention was, the potential for a relationship between the passenger and the hiker (played gamely by Jen Banks and Marc Paquet, struggling with the sound system) seemed for just a moment to be reasonable.

Outstanding Balance, by Jennifer McGrath Kent, involved a convincing call-center bill-collector (Nanette Soucy) harassing an already harassed "supermom" (Tara Simmonds) and her nebbish husband (Kyle Peters) over an alleged $6.52 unpaid phone bill. In spite of the sound difficulties, the play delivered a number of good moments, including a number of good lines as the couple try to explain that they never lived at the address the phone bill is for. Had they had a little more control, I suspect the intensifying relationship between the husband and wife, as she demonstrates her courage, might have been more convincingly built up.

Perhaps the strongest performance of the shows was delivered by Meghan Mesheau as a flaky marketgoer in Charmaine Cadeau's Sunflowers. Beginning what seems a random conversation in the midst of a crowded market (Frederictonians know what that feels like) with a confused shopper (Brent Dawes), Mesheau bubbled and babbled convincingly and amusingly. I'm still not clear what the function of the third character (Katie Mulholland) is in the script, other than to give the playwright a way to end it, but the piece as a whole is amusing, engaging, and tantalizingly ambiguous.

The conversation between an eleven year old trying to learn how to shave, so that he can be a man, and his indulgent and attentive father which is the substance of The Sill, by Kyle Peters, is touching and often funny. The eleven year old is solidly played by Scott Flynn, with excellent timing, and Andrew Cogswell is convincing as the father, in spite of what seemed to me some fairly clunky lines and an unconvincing assumption that an eleven year old would be learning to shave with lather and a safety razor.

Finally, The Creative Process is a wonderfully imaginative romp in which a dramatist's fantasies (as he writes a stage direction, for instance, characters behind him act it out) take over the process. Everyone knows the old line about how a good writer sets his characters in motion and they then tell her what to do; in this script they physically do just that, to wonderfully comic effect, at least under Jay Rawding's direction. The four actors -- Jordan Trethewey as the hapless writer, and Meghan Mesheau, Brent Dawes, and Robin McLeod playing three characters in his play -- clearly have a wonderful time with the swiftly tilting balance of power, which comes to be a matter of who actually has control of the pen.

Outdoor theatre is often pushed toward exaggeration and slapstick comedy in order to compensate for the demands of the venue; these plays show almost none of that tendency.  They're even sometimes thoughtful and touching, and the comedy is rarely crude.

If the sound problems are solved -- and I'd be tempted to consider abandoning the miking altogether, as most of these actors struck me as capable of projecting at least to the last row of folding chairs -- this set of short plays is more than worth the stroll over to the Tannery (or even a trip downtown for lunch). The NotaBle Acts festival have taken their "street theatre" out pretty close to the street this summer (last year it was inside King's Place), and since it appears the weatherman is cooperating, the gamble appears to be paying off. Outdoor theatre adds some powerful life to the downtown scene. Would that something like this could happen all summer.

Note: on a visit to the site the second day the sound problems had been generally solved by abandoning the clip-on microphones and going to floor mikes. Unhampered and undistracted by the mikes, the actors were markedly more able to focus on playing their characters, to good effect (particularly in the most physical of the plays, "The Creative Process"). I think I have to call it a victory for the festival, rather than a draw.

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