Never Swim Alone
by Daniel MacIvor
Hampton High School / Theatre St. Thomas
Black Box Theatre, September 2003
The new context created for us by MacIvor, and the astonishing company from Hampton High School responsible for this production, is a bizarre one. The matching males enter, sunglassed, suited, and macho, and uncover, center stage, a svelte, bathing suit clad young woman who, it turns out, is to be the judge of, and in some elliptical way the pretext for, a surreal competition between the two men. She's at the beach, she says, and the two are watching her. She challenges them to a race ("beat you to the point" becomes a leitmotif of the script), but what actually happens is that she gets up in the lifeguard / umpire's chair, with her whistle, to act as umpire/referee and judge in a series of verbal (and sometimes beyond verbal) competitions. "Round one," she says, and off they go, engaging in what seem rather like every subtly competitive conversation you've ever heard between two blue suits, except these are counterpointed and overlapping, rapid-fire, mechanical, sometimes descending (or ascending) into incomprehensibility as the two talk over each other. At pauses, they turn to the judge, who pronounces the victor: "Frank!" and Frank then gets a minute to talk directly to us (but for Bill and the "referee") in an attempt to get our sympathy.
The playwright's ear for the rhythms of conversation and the wash of clichés, and especially the surreal situation it all occurs in, are strongly reminiscent of the work of David Ives, and so is the sheer delight in uncovering the emptiness behind many of the values that the characters take for granted. And, similarly, MacIvor doesn't much bother with creating characters: these cartoon figures are all we need to get the point and enjoy the sardonic laughter.
Shane MacMillan's direction of his young cast is thoughtful and effective, and demands the tightest timing imaginable, as many of the speeches are in unison or counterpoint, as are the actions (often, the two men open their briefcases with unison snaps, or turn and move their chairs as mirror images). The constant movement keeps the audience engaged from one round to the next, and underscores the action (at one point, when the two men talk about being "somebody else," they swap sides of the stage). And it underscores the building tension between them, and the increasing frustration of the "referee," as she calls "foul!" when Frank or Bill takes a verbal cheap shot.
The actors -- Stephen Mercer as Frank, Caleb Cosman as Bill, and Lesley Guravich as the Referee -- are tight, disciplined, coherent and audible, which is what they need to be. There isn't much "character" to any of the characters, so much of what they do is better assessed as choral speaking than traditional acting, but it seems clear all have the stage presence and confidence to have done that, too, had it been demanded. In fact, it seems fair to wonder what would have happened had the company tried to create more character -- keeping the unison, but putting more articulation into speeches which often seemed the utterances of androids.What we got, though, was fine: androids with whom, occasionally, we felt moments of sympathy: when, miming the swim to the point, the two men pass and leave behind the increasingly plaintive referee (who's this contest about, anyway?), or one of the men when a particularly telling blow was landed (at one point, quite literally).
And even though we missed some of the good lines because of the mechanical speed of delivery, there were plenty left. "If bullshit had a brain, it would quote Nietzche," Bill announces to the world just after Frank's triumphant Nietzche quote. Or "An endless possibility is the best thing to wake up next to." Or "she can hear them blush."
We should be grateful to Ilkay Silk for having recognized the power of this production during the high school drama festival last June, and inviting Hampton High back this fall. Clearly, we should be watching, next spring, for what Shane MacMillan and the folks from down river bring back up next June.