Theatre Saint Thomas
I normally don't much like the kind of show Working is -- it's plotless and focused on "performance" (and individual as opposed to ensemble performance at that). So I was pretty surprised to find myself feeling very positive as I left the Black Box Friday night. I enjoyed the show as much as anything I've seen in Fredericton recently, and I found myself trying to figure out why.
One reason is pretty obvious. There are a number of remarkable individual performances. Some of the ones that leap to mind are Tania Breen as Delores the waitress (a genuine show-stopper, a star turn if I've ever seen one), Jeff Embleton's wonderful, focussed singing in "Fathers and Sons" (and his equally brilliant portrayal of the vaguely rebellious hippie copy boy), Darrell Mesheau's competent, passionate, and moving portrayal of a corporate CEO (I'll remember his obsessive and repetitive description of the fired employee breaking down and crying in his office for some time), Alison Mesheau's dispirited and resilient hooker, with her wonderful explanation that everybody sells herself, Rob Suffron as the fireman trying to find a way to make his life count for something, Heather Stuckless' quick, effective timing as the hotel switchboard operator, Anna Silk's perfect receptionist, explaining that she's really a communications expediter, and Rob Huntington's indomitable stonemason.
What characterized all those performances -- and lots of others I haven't mentioned -- for me was their authority. I didn't once think about whether this actor was going to carry the role off: in each case I could listen to the character through the actor. The actors managed, over and over, to make the dialogue sound as though it were being said by the character, not by the actor. So I came to care about people's aspirations and frustrations. And in some way I forgot, often, about the fact that there isn't really much structure to the show: I got involved, one after another, in what amounted to a series of monologues. That I did so is a tribute, I think, to the casting and to the competence of the actors: I usually resist getting engaged in that one-character-speaking-to-nobody-in-particular sort of thing.
Part of the reason I got involved is probably that the show's poltical agenda is one that make sense to me, that resonates with my life. Unlike lots of the sort of upbeat musicals we often see done by what are always called "Young People" in the programme these days -- shows about how great it is to be a Canadian, or a Christian, or a Person Who Needs People -- this one is about something that matters: what it means to work, what it means to have work that you can invest yourself in and what it means not to have such work. Alfie Kohn, a writer about education and business motivation I've been reading recently, says, "if you want people to do good work, give them good work to do." That might be one way to say what Working is about, and I thought a good deal about my own work and other people's work while watching the show. If you don't want to think about that, as the Daily Gleaner reviewer apparently doesn't, I guess you might find this show oppressive. I didn't.
It's also important in thinking about how much I liked the show that the music was, like most of the performances, absolutely confident. Jon-O Addleman's keyboarding, the general professional tastefulness of the onstage band, and the sure sense of competence among almost all the singers, all contributed to my being able to spend the evening thinking -- and feeling -- about people's work and what it means to them (and me). So did the elegantly simple set and the precise and clearly defined lighting.
Sure, I could have tolerated a little more sense of corporate energy from the company (a little more "Characters Incorporated" joie de vivre wouldn't have hurt -- even though I find an excess of that sort of thing pretty unbearable). And I really wish that Schwartz and Faso had found a way to structure the show so that there was just a bit of anticipation, and some way to tell other than by the chord structure and the lighting that we were at the end of the first act, or of the evening. But the bottom line is that I went out of the Black Box happy about theatre, and thinking hard about what work is about.