Russ Hunt's Reviews

Tighten the Traces
by Robbie O'Neill

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

Robbie O'Neill has become a familiar face to Fredericton theatregoers in the last few years, as he has contributed his formidable stage presence to a number of Theatre St. Thomas productions (notably Our Country's Good), because of the mounting two years ago of his adaptation of Micheál Mac Liammóir's I Must Be Talking to My Friends and, more recently, the touching workshop production of Don Hannah's Fathers and Sons at last year's NotaBle Acts Festival.

Elsewhere, however, he's primarily known as the creator -- while he was at the Mulgrave Road Theatre Co-op -- of the remarkable one-man show, Tighten the Traces, a portrait of Leo Kennedy, a heroic survivor of (perhaps a better phrase would be "triumpher over") cerebral palsy and polio who lived in Cape Breton.

Though the show has existed for over twenty years, it's never been performed publicly in Fredericton, and it has been newly mounted, with music provided by Mike Doherty and Tom Easley, two of the city's finest musicians, for this year's Festival.

Beginning with a narrative introduction of how he came to meet Leo Kennedy, and how the props used in the show are all gifts to O'Neill from Kennedy himself, O'Neill transforms himself into the spasmodically twitching, twisted and crippled Kennedy, and launches into an hour's worth of what might be taken to be pretty self-regarding stories and conversation if Kennedy weren't so wonderfully charming and naive.  It's very much as though you were in the kitchen with an aging and engaging relative, pouring forth his life and lessons over a glass of rye.  Some of the stories are genuinely compelling -- the ripping yarn of the rescue of 14 men from a ship run aground, or the saga of his deciding to be a fisherman, and carpeting the bow of a dory with roofing shingles so that he could hold himself upright on his twisted and crippled legs.  Some seem almost embarrassingly self-dramatizing (how hard you have to work to convince strangers you're simply not a crazy beggar and make a living as a traveling peddler, how much sheer courage it takes to throw away your braces as a child and decide to walk anyway). All are compulsively listenable, as O'Neill struggles back and forth across the stage, reminding us of -- and making us forget, at the same time -- Kennedy's twisted, twitching body.

There's something strange at the heart of the play, though, an odd kind of ambivalence about the truth, the literal reality, of what O'Neill brings us in his impersonation of Kennedy. To the extent we believe it is Kennedy speaking, and that these are his literal words, we accept and allow for the stories which seem less than theatrically effective.  After all, he's an old guy in the kitchen, and a wonderful and courageous one. And O'Neill is careful to tell us that he tape-recorded their conversations, and got Kennedy's permission to enact him, and to remind us that the model dory and the drummer's suitcase are actually Kennedy's own.

But then there's the part that's Robbie O'Neill telling us about Kennedy, and showing us his faults and his virtues, and there's an edge of parody or exaggeration that adds a little thrill of ambiguity to the production.  Are we laughing with, or at, Leo Kennedy?  Sometimes we're not quite sure.

For this production, O'Neill invited Mike Doherty and Tom Easley to contribute music, and while the music was absolutely first-rate, I'm not sure it added to the production.  The byplay between Leo Kennedy and the young musicians at the back didn't always ring true, and reminded us of the complicated situation: was that Kennedy, or O'Neill, talking with Mike and Tom? Still, it was worth the complication to have the wonderful full-on rendition of George Formby's immortal "When I'm Cleaning Windows" (one hopes that Kennedy actually did perform it back in his Canso kitchen).

In a festival focused on playwrighting, as this one is, no production could be much more appropriate, or a much better way to spend an hour and think about the nature of dramatic reality.

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