Remnants, March 7, 2019, LSPU Hall
Four women are standing in a row at the front of the stage. Momentarily still – a quartet of caryatids – they soon begin to assume different poses. At first graceful, the poses grow increasingly contorted. The women start to murmur. Then to yell. Then to scream. They scream and scream. They’re burning alive.
I saw Jenna Turk’s Remnants on Thursday night at the Hall. Just in time for International Women’s Day, the play dramatizes the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire. As Mike Wallace puts it in his recent history of Progressive-era New York, in its day the Triangle Company "was the largest blouse-making operation in New York. In busy seasons, over 500 were at work on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the ten-story building at 23-29 Washington Place, … half a block from Washington Square. The Triangle’s shipping plant bundled, boxed, and dispersed 2,000 garments per day, sometimes more, a million dollars’ worth of waists a year. Owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris had become rich." Yet these owners had concluded that installing sprinklers was too expensive; and they couldn’t be bothered to organize fire drills; and the building itself was a firetrap. When the conflagration came, 146 workers – most of them women; most of them immigrants – burned to death or threw themselves from the eighth and ninth floors of the building, preferring death by falling. Some of those who jumped were already burning. A contemporary witness wrote: “Down came the bodies in a shower, burning, smoking – flaming bodies, with disheveled hair trailing upward.” He wrote: “I learned a new sound – a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.” Prior to 9/11, it was the worst workplace disaster in American history.
The Triangle Fire is rich material for a politically oriented playwright, and I was looking forward to seeing how Turk would approach it. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was already the site of labor activism well before the fire: two years earlier, there had been a walkout over conditions there. In that 10-story building just off Washington Square, histories of American labor entangled with histories of immigration and histories of women, all in the larger context of an America undergoing wrenching change. And as both Turk and director Ruth Lawrence note in the production’s program, the disaster has continuing relevance: the 2013 collapse of a textiles factory in Bangladesh is a Triangle Fire for the global present.
Turk builds her dramatization of the disaster around four women: Danijela, a supervisor; Lena, the factory owner’s daughter; and two workers, the Bolshevik activist Esther and the heartbreakingly young child laborer Anne. (These roles are played, respectively, by Vanessa Cardoso Whelan, Karen Monie, Nabila Qureshi, and Nora Barker – by far the most diverse cast I’ve seen on a stage in St. John’s and a cause for celebration.) On the day of the fire, the room that Danijela supervises is troubled by two unusual events: the unwelcome presence of the owner’s daughter Lena; and the unaccountable absence of Anne. When she eventually arrives, she’s so overwrought that she’s barely capable of work, but even so she’s desperate to stay. Gradually the play reveals the source of her distress.
This schema gives Turk the means to show capital from different vantage points: that of the girl born to the manor, beginning to suspect that there’s rot beneath the gilding; that of the politically engaged activist, who has, in the maelstrom of modern life, faced with sober senses the real conditions obtaining between capital and labor; and that of the mediator, a worker who has allowed herself to become the bosses’ instrument. This last, the turncoat, is the character who best embodies the conflicts structuring the world in which she lives. She is, accordingly, the most interesting role in the play – a fact that the script would do well to bring out more sharply.
Remnants is a particularly handsome production. Lawrence fills the play with exquisite images, beginning with that opening tableau. At key moments, snippets of early film are projected onto characters’ aprons or onto the cotton sheets they’re holding before them. One of these clips, from 1915, shows suffragettes marching on the streets of New York (see the comments below for a link to this extraordinary footage). These projections are a coup not only for their sheer, haunting theatricality but also for their profundity: better than the script or the performances, it’s this footage that resurrects the past while revealing its remoteness. In a famous critique of the so-called culture industry, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called mass entertainment the afterimage of the work process – in Edmund Jephcott’s translation, the “prolongation of work under late capitalism” – and it’s politically acute to project these afterimages back into the factory, onto the mass-produced aprons of the mass-producing workers. It’s also historically accurate, in a play set four years before Griffith released Birth of a Nation, to make cotton a screen for the uncanny. These moments – call them the play’s punctuation – are joyful and rich.
And the script has one moment in particular of keen psychological penetration. In Turk’s telling, the labor-rights activist Esther can’t help feeling envious of her male partner Charlie, whose workplace has unionized. Far from galvanizing him, this success has made him complacent: he sees no need to continue the struggle, this time on Esther’s behalf. The betrayal stings; Esther can’t help feeling resentful. As Sianne Ngai has so brilliantly written of the “ugly feeling” of envy, it is the “only agonistic emotion defined as having a perceived inequality as its object.” Turk offers, in this instance, a convincing sketch of the fractures in solidarity precipitated by uneven political gains. This sharp-eyed insight and the evidence of seriousness in her choice of subject matter prove that Turk is a playwright whose talent we should nurture.
There is, however, a fundamental problem in the play, which is that it devotes an impossible amount of time to conversation. Dialogue is essential given the play’s plot, but it’s inimical to the play’s setting, a factory renowned for exploiting its workers. Despite recurring rituals of labor in which Danijela intones “Sew, sew, sew” and the workers congregate in a line to assemble blouses, work doesn’t predominate: there are far more scenes in which the odd couple of Esther and Lena – the Bolshevik and the boss’s daughter – nurture a cautious friendship, or in which Danijela and Esther spar over the conditions of labor at the Triangle Company, or in which all three speculate at length about what is causing Anne such distress. The suspension of work necessary for these exchanges to occur hopelessly vitiates the play’s indictment of sweatshop capitalism.
The problem lies in Turk’s choice of dramatic form, which is, to put the matter starkly, inappropriate for the setting. Narrative theatre, as Bertolt Brecht observed, depends on suspense, which is hard to cultivate when one’s characters are obliged to work. This is neither a new problem nor one confined to theatre. When early-nineteenth-century American writers were first importing the novel of manners from England to America, it wasn’t clear that American society would prove hospitable to the form. William Cullen Bryant wrote that "It has been objected, that [we Americans] are too universally and continually engrossed by the cares and occupations of business to have leisure for that intrigue, those plottings and counterplottings, which are necessary to give a sufficient degree of action and eventfulness to the novel of real life. It is said that we need for this purpose a class of men, whose condition in life places them above the necessity of active exertion, and who are driven to the practice of intrigue, because they have nothing else to do." Jane Austen’s protagonists have ample time to visit the Assembly Rooms, even when they profess to be feeling the pinch. Catharine Sedgwick solved the problem of Americanizing the novel of manners by setting her versions exclusively among the well-to-do. The factory, by contrast, is no space for “plottings and counterplottings.” There’s a scene in Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie in which the protagonist Carrie Meeber briefly works in a Chicago shoe-making sweatshop. Dreiser liberates her from this narrative abyss as expeditiously as he can.
The playwright setting her scene in the Taylorized world of early twentieth-century factory labor will struggle to find room for the business of plot in a world “when,” in the lyrics of the labor-struggle musical The Pyjama Game, you’re “racing with the clock, and your fingers ache and your back may break and your constitution isn’t made of rock.” In a 1909 article in The New York Evening Journal, Clara Lemlich described the working day at the Triangle Factory: “the girls have to be at their machines at 7 o’clock in the morning and they stay at them until 8 o’clock at night, with just one-half hour for lunch in that time.” This schedule is inhospitable to intrigue. Turk is in some measure aware of the problem: her solution is to put the four women in a comparatively privileged space, a room off the main factory floor where skilled needlewomen put the finishing touches on the shirt waists. But this is at best a partial solution, and it threatens to raises new problems, since, isolated in their room, the women are alienated from most of the fire’s victims. A better solution would be to find a new dramatic form altogether: a verbatim theatre, maybe; or something on the plan of the living newspaper. As Brecht put it: “to comprehend new areas of subject-matter imposes a new dramatic and theatrical form.” The conventions of drawing-room drama fall short and should simply be jettisoned.
As part of the search for a new form, the play might more carefully theorize the relation between past and present. Both Turk and Lawrence, in their respective program notes, set the Triangle disaster in a longer history of workplace disasters: both of them mention the 2013 fire in a garment factory in Bangladesh, which both see as a Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster for the 21st century. This sense of the entanglement of the past in the present implies a theory of history – that, as Faulkner put it, the past isn’t past. The site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, 23-29 Washington Place, is now the property of New York University. But the garment district survives: it’s just gone global. The sense that Turk and Lawrence express of the Triangle disaster’s contemporary relevance is entirely convincing.
But as far as I can see, it’s a sense that they confine to the production’s paratexts – which is to say, Lawrence and Turk make this point in the program but not in the play itself. There’s nothing unseemly about the proleptic exegesis offered in program notes. I think of programs, in fact, as a crucial part of any production, and look forward to Lawrence’s productions partly because I know the director’s notes will be provocative and illuminating. Even so, one can measure the brilliance of a given production by the elegance with which the play proper finds theatrical correlatives for its thematic and political points. In Remnants, Lawrence hasn’t found a way to make 1911 and 2013 converge.
A note of accusation might be the ticket. Lawrence asks herself about her complicity in the tragedy of Bangladesh, given her love of fashion, and she intimates, gently, that we in the audience might be complicit, too. In the wake of the Triangle Factory Fire, the labor activist Rose Schneiderman sounded a different, far more discordant note: at a memorial to the dead, she said, “I would be a traitor to those poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting.” Her anger still makes bracing reading now. It might be at odds with Lawrence’s temperament, but I think she might, like Schneiderman, have risked offending the audience, in solidarity with the poor burned bodies of the Triangle Factory, and with the poor crushed bodies of Savar, and with all the poor bodies locked in the factories of the future, whose deaths the Angel of History might anticipate but can’t yet see. I didn’t leave the LSPU Hall feeling implicated in these resilient systems of exploitation. I should have.
Offensive to Some , January 24, 2019, LSPU Hall
A young woman relives the lifelong chain of events that led her to murder her abusive husband. Alternately defiant and self-loathing, in one moment exuberant to the point of frenzy and in the next reduced to exhausted apathy, she circles around and around the terrible moment when she finally retaliated. Gradually but inexorably, her orbit decays.
Offensive to Some, Berni Stapleton’s great tragedy of domestic violence, is onstage at the LSPU Hall: you can still see it tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 2. With its rich language and symbolism; with clear political convictions that it articulates with great nuance; and with an irresistible, devastating character at its centre: by a wide margin it’s the best play that I’ve ever seen about Newfoundland. Its political project reverberates well beyond the province, but it sets itself in relation to local history and anatomizes the pathologies of the local culture in a way that’s unsparing, unsentimental, and utterly convincing. Change your plans, whatever they are, and go see it.
The play’s portrait of an abuse victim strikes me as completely credible, her mind a terrible snarl of indignation, anger, self-reproach, fear, and regret. It's particularly moving when she tallies, as in a ritual, the scars on her body – the physical traces of her husband’s violence. This is exactly what a person enduring long-term physical abuse does: one’s body becomes an account book, this wound here, this one here, and this one, and this one; and in the tallying up one guiltily fantasizes about balancing the books. When the Performer finally does retaliate, the play makes its talionic logic explicit. But the great power of the play lies in the Performer’s fears that her husband’s violence won’t just redound upon him (“the villainy you teach, I will execute”), but will infect others, engendering fresh violence. The mother of three boys, she fears becoming abusive herself. And she harbours still worse fears.
Just as powerful are those scenes in which the central character relives her abuse, re-enacting her husband’s assaults upon her. It’s a delicate business to stage this manner of suffering. (In “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” William Wordsworth says that “I would not be misunderstood; but wherever we sympathize with pain it will be found that the sympathy is produced and carried on by subtle combinations with pleasure” – the pleasure we take is the crux of the problem.) In a performance remarkable throughout for its fearlessness, Miranda MacDonald is particularly effective here: the ragged, agonized breaths she takes when the violence is over (at least for the moment) are a perfectly judged sign of the pain the character is feeling, one that communicates with the audience at a deep, visceral level. Between MacDonald’s performance and Alexis Koetting’s in the recent Poison, the LSPU Hall has been graced this year with spectacular work. And it's still only January. Count your blessings, St. John’s.
In its portrait of a young murderess, Offensive to Some bears comparison with George Elliott Clarke’s 1999 tragedy Beatrice Chancy, itself modeled on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci. In a preface, Shelley says of his tragic hero Beatrice that “the young maiden who was urged to this tremendous deed by an impulse which overpowered its horror, was evidently a gentle and most amiable being, a creature formed to adorn and be admired, and thus violently thwarted from her nature by the necessity of circumstance and opinion.” Offensive to Some likewise sees its protagonist as violently thwarted, and offers glimpses of the woman who might have been. And just as Clarke’s play uses the Cenci plot to anatomize slavery in early-nineteenth-century Nova Scotia, Stapleton’s play emphasizes that the violence to its protagonist has been perpetrated not just by an abusive husband but by her parents, too, and her whole community. In one instance, the police investigating one of the husband’s many assaults on his wife dismiss it as a “little domestic situation.” Later, remarking on the yellow tape that the police have placed around her house in the wake of the murder, the Performer witheringly notes that the house has been an unattended crime scene for years.
Offensive to Some differs from Clarke’s tragedy in that it is not precisely a historical play. But it nonetheless has an historical figure at its symbolic centre: Catherine Mandeville (Snow), who was convicted in 1834 of her husband’s murder and hanged in the presence of a crowd of onlookers on Duckworth Street, her sentence delayed, however, until she’d given birth to her last child, a daughter. Catherine haunts the central character of Stapleton’s play, who discerns in Catherine a similar victim of spousal abuse, likewise pushed to desperate measures. In one instance she notes that there’s no record of what happened to Catherine’s infant daughter, and she imagines, fancifully, that she herself is the girl in question.
Catherine’s office in this play is to imbue the Performer’s narrative with a larger significance and to supply the play with an historical consciousness. Conjured up by the Performer and, in a sense, possessing her, Catherine reminds me of Hester Prynne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s protagonist in The Scarlet Letter. (Seeing Hawthorne everywhere is the curse of the Hawthorne specialist.) By the standards of his male contemporaries, Hawthorne was being provocative in placing an adultery plot at the centre of his historical fiction, a disgraced woman rather than heroic men waging war on behalf of a settler nation. (To measure the difference, compare Hester as a symbol of American nationhood with Natty Bumppo, protagonist of the complacently genocidal Last of the Mohicans.) Stapleton’s Catherine similarly challenges the patriarchal plots that dominate Newfoundland historical fiction: set Offensive to Some alongside some of the major novels of Newfoundland nationhood – Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Gaff Topsails, Galore – and you’ll see a fundamentally different, far less filiopietistic, and ultimately far more interesting conception of Newfoundland nationhood. (Here let me plug the work of a Memorial University PhD candidate: my understanding of those three novels has been heavily influenced by Mandy Rowsell’s excellent work on toxic masculinity in contemporary Newfoundland fiction.)
Set in the present, Offensive to Some resembles another of Hawthorne’s romances, too: The House of the Seven Gables, which is rooted in a generations-spanning feud between two families in Salem, Massachusetts, the working-class Maules and the affluent Pyncheons. History in Seven Gables is typological, which is to say that each new generation of Maule and Pyncheon seems doomed to re-enact the same feud, now one side prevailing, now the other, but always in agonistic relation to one another. Seven Gables is optimistic: the present-day generation finally overcomes its history. Offensive to Some, by contrast, sees history repeat itself: Catherine murdered an abusive husband; so too does the Performer. And it gets bleaker: the Performer tries to stop the cycle of violence and to break free from this typological repetition, and she only makes matters worse. The burden of overcoming the tradition of violence shifts instead to the audience. It’s in this respect above all that the play is sharply political.
On the way home, still swept up in the world that Stapleton, Lawrence, and MacDonald had conjured, I passed Holy Heart of Mary High School. The street was crowded with audience members just leaving Come from Away, that bouquet to Newfoundland hospitality. The musical has its own sense of Newfoundland nationhood – heartwarming and affirmative and, in our current pinched times, indispensable. But likewise indispensable is the spirit of critique and anger that animates Offensive to Some. Whatever our aspirations, we don’t live in a Utopia of neighbourliness. We deserve a good tragedy. Take the opportunity to go see it.
Poison, January 10, 2019, LSPU Hall
In Lot Vekemans’ Poison, a once-married couple reunite at the cemetery where their son is buried. The estranged wife has sent her husband a letter informing him that their son’s remains may have to be relocated: a poison has been discovered in the soil. Waiting for the cemetery’s representatives to appear to explain the situation and offer reassurances, the couple talk with one another for the first time in a decade, the strained politeness between them gradually relaxing. We discover that in the intervening decade they’ve responded differently to the tragedy: he has moved on; she has not.
I saw Poison at the LSPU Hall this week in a production expertly directed by Charlie Tomlinson and starring Aiden Flynn and Alexis Koetting, whose masterful performances in the roles of He and She reduced me to tears and left me in a state of emotional volatility that’s continued for days. There are three more performances – a matinee and evening performance today and a matinee tomorrow – and everyone should see it.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the proper attitude to adopt towards a work predicated on the death of a child is naked hostility. As Wilde quipped apropos of the death of Little Nell, the best response is laughter. Vekemans serves us this chestnut as shamelessly as any nineteenth-century melodramatist. But it works in Poison, and overcomes your Wildean resistance, partly because the characters have been frozen in grief for so long that the thaw, when it comes, seems earned.
The production’s set is emphatically wintry and austere, so much so that it’s almost de trop: four benches, all painted white, neatly arranged around the back of the stage; four panels on the back wall, likewise white, like frosted windows or Supremacist paintings; on one side of the set, a water cooler and on the other, an electric kettle – this last a promise that the temperature is soon to climb.
The challenge facing any production is to raise the temperature carefully enough that the audience doesn’t realize or doesn’t resent that its emotions have been manipulated. Everything depends on the artistry of the two actors. Tomlinson couldn’t have made a better choice than Flynn and Koetting. Flynn is excellent as a man whose emotional constitution may mean that he only ever felt a fathom of grief, and who, back on the surface now, no longer understands even those depths. (I mean it as a compliment when I say that Flynn is very good at portraying white, middle-aged, middle-class male fatigue: he’s my spirit animal.) Koetting is even better in the role of a parent frozen in bereavement: I can’t remember a more complex, more assured performance on a St. John’s stage.
The insistently spare and wintry set, the play’s portentous title, the naming of the protagonists as He and She rather than, say, Archibald and Antonia, and the vagueness of the setting – a waiting room at an unnamed cemetery – all emphasize that the play is more than just a character study or an anatomy of grief. He is given to remarks about faith and She to expressions of doubt; that the play is a theodicy of sorts is suggested by a song that He refers to, and eventually sings: “It Must Be So,” from Bernstein’s musical Candide, based on Voltaire’s satire. (This choice of song may be original to this production: in the New York production, the song seems to have been Richard Strauss’ “Morgen!” If so the substitution is inspired.) In Bernstein’s musical, Candide sings this song after his expulsion from the earthly paradise of Westphalia and his alienation from his lover Cunégonde. He is reminding himself of his tutor’s conviction, derived from Liebniz and Pope, that we live in the best of all possible worlds:
My world is dust now, and all I loved is dead,
So let me trust now in what my master said:
There is a sweetness in every woe.
It must be so.
It must be so.
In reiterating the final line, he reveals that that his epistemic certainty has been shaken: he’s not convinced woe has any sweetness to it (if it does, his palate isn’t discerning enough to taste it). Voltaire’s satire is the most enduring aftershock of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which caused such devastation that the reassurance of the Optimists that “all discord [is] harmony not understood” seemed glibly platitudinous. Like Candide, Poison is a reckoning with disaster, albeit an exclusively intimate, domestic one.
The play is translated from the Dutch; its original title is Gif, a word that means “poison” but that’s also related to the English word “gift.” (“Poison” has a similar double meaning, if you push far back enough in its history, but its doubleness isn’t as insistent.) The play spins the contradiction between these two meanings into a narrative: the cemetery’s poisoned soil is, with unapologetic obviousness, a metaphor for the couple’s poisoned relationship, but in the course of the play this poison ultimately becomes therapeutic – in a specific sense, restorative. In A Bright Room Called Day, Tony Kushner’s early play about Weimar Germany and the rise of Hitler, a character on the cusp of escaping the country promises a friend who can’t muster the courage to leave that she “will take your heart and fold it up in mine, and protect it with my life. And some day I may be able to bring it back to you.” I thought of that line as He and She negotiated their reunion. Grief, Poison tells us, alienates us from ourselves. The beauty of the play lies not in the temporary reunion of He and She but in the deeper, more enduring reconciliation it permits, with a self that each one had lost.
Original, November 28, 2018, LSPU Hall
Ten years after Elizabeth I’s death opened the door for Shakespeare to unleash his series of nasty queens, and seventy years before Milton blamed Eve for losing herself in Satan’s labyrinth of sophistries, the Englishwoman Aemilia Lanyer published Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, a volume of poetry most memorable for its poem defending Eve as a “simply good” woman with “no power to see” through the serpent’s lies. Speaking in the voice of Pilate’s wife, Lanyer wrote:
The after-coming harm did not appear:
The subtle serpent that our sex betrayed
Before our fall so sure a plot had laid.
That undiscerning ignorance perceived
No guile or craft that was by him intended;
For had she known of what we were bereaved,
To his request she had not condescended.
But she, poor soul, by cunning was deceived;
No hurt therein her harmless heart intended:
For she alleged God’s word, which he denies,
That they should die, but even as gods be wise.
The argument is straightforward and powerful: since Eve lived in a state of perfect innocence, how can we possibly fault her for believing an expert liar? The Mother of Us All was a Sitting Duck.
Lanyer’s poem was on my mind as I went to the LSPU Hall on Wednesday for the opening night of Sharon King-Campbell’s Original, the first production in Persistence Theatre Company’s new season. King-Campbell, who’s an MA student in my department, is one of a number of young playwrights – Andrea Dunne and Darren Ivany among them – who are producing exciting new work in Newfoundland. Like Ivany, King-Campbell is also a magnetic actor, and in Original, she plays all three roles.
In the tradition of Lanyer’s Salve Deus, the play offers a vindication of Eve. Original’s particular version of this notorious fructivore wonders why God put the forbidden fruit in Eden in the first place, if eating it would turn out so badly. And in describing her sexual experiences with Adam – whose proprietary attitude towards her body did not mean he had a clue as to how it worked – she conveys with crystal clarity why she might be unhappy enough to ignore God’s one commandment.
But Eve is only one of three mythological Original Women in the play. The other two are Pandora, from Greek mythology, and Embla, from Norse. All of them are immortal, and from century to century each grapples with her particular patriarchal traditions in her own way. Eve is a revolutionary who joins emancipatory struggles; Embla is a self-described nihilist who looks forward to the apocalypse; and the earnest Pandora is guilt-ridden over having unleashed catastrophe in the first place. The plot (which is not, and which needn’t be, the play’s primary interest) involves the disposition of the last object in Pandora’s pot. According to Hesiod’s Works and Days (in Dorothea Wenders’ translation), when Pandora “opened up the cask,/And scattered pains and evils among men./Inside the cask’s hard walls remained one thing,/Hope, only” – a legend that Pandora has carefully considered and roundly dismissed. She’s come to believe that what’s rattling about in her pot is something worse than all the pains and evils that have already escaped, and her imagination quails at what that might entail. She considers herself the pot’s guardian. When she makes the mistake of confiding her fears with the catastrophe-minded Embla, their relationship gets complicated.
Elegantly directed by Berni Stapleton, the play is full of vivid moments. Eve’s description of an erotic encounter with a tempting snake; her terrifying account of surviving the Flood; Pandora’s description of the illnesses and deaths that followed the opening of the casket: all of these scenes are exquisitely written and genuinely moving.
During Eve’s account of the Flood it became clear to me that King-Campbell’s interest is only partly in a Lanyer-style recuperation of the three Originals. Embla’s desire for Ragnarok, once and for all, gestures to what I take to be King-Campbell’s real interest. With its eschatological themes, the play reminds me of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which responded to the catastrophe of AIDS by wondering, along with its Benjaminian angels, whether it might not be better for history to stop altogether than for still more wreckage to pile up. In Original, the catastrophes range from the Biblical Flood to Hiroshima, by way of the eruption of Vesuvius, the French Revolution, the Triangle Factory Fire, and others, with an emphasis on the victimization of women. It’s a gargantuan project for a one-act play to undertake, a mark of King-Campbell’s political and artistic seriousness and a good omen for the future of Newfoundland theatre.
Which isn’t to say that the play addresses the question with perfect success. How could it? One of the charges against second-wave feminism was that it was a fundamentally Eurocentric political movement, and it’s fair to critique Original on similar grounds. Its focus is heavily on European and American catastrophes. Because my work focuses on early American culture, I found the absence of transatlantic slavery and indigenous genocide from the play’s field of vision particularly noticeable and, to my mind, that absence undermined the play’s power. One might make the case that these catastrophes are implicit in the ones that the play chooses to address, the tenor of the various vehicles that the play assembles; one might also make the fair point that in a play taking in all of human history, it’s impossible to include every calamity. Still, I left the play feeling that there was a narrowness to its current vision that future drafts might rectify. A question of global purport can only be convincingly answered when thought through in genuinely global terms.
My response may be a function of having seen the play after a week of footage showing refugees sprayed with tear gas at the US-Mexico border. The instantly iconic photograph from the event focused on a mother in a Disney shirt trying to pull her two daughters to safety. A meditation on the Eves, Pandoras, and Emblas of history will have the political urgency it strives for only if that mother and those daughters are part of its ambit. Original is daring and ambitious, a play of ideas with a rich emotional underpinning, scrupulously researched but with a wonderfully antic relationship to its sources. I liked it a lot. It was really good. It can be more.
Men of Misfortune, November 2, 2018, LSPU Hall
At the end of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, Lavinia Mannon, the last survivor of the American House of Atreus, retreats into her family manse to abide with her ghosts. “I’ve got to punish myself!” she tells her lone witness. “Living alone here with the dead is a worse act of justice than death or prison! I’ll never go out or see anyone! … I’ll live alone with the dead, and keep their secrets, and let them hound me, until the curse is paid out and the last Mannon is let die!” She retreats across the threshold, closes her door, and waits for death. This American Electra becomes the embodiment of Mourning. Eventually, Mourning Becomes Andy Jones. And one dreary midnight, while Andy’s nodding, nearly napping, Greg Malone comes rapping – rapping at his chamber door.
Which is to say that Lynn and I went down to the LSPU Hall last night to see RCA’s production of Men of Misfortune, a great new two-act play by the talented playwright and Old Man Wolverine lookalike Charles Picco. The play, which runs until November 10th, is sensitively directed by Nicole Rousseau, with whom I was last onstage in the Finasteriders’ reading of Kushner’s Bright Room Called Day, and whose direction I last saw when Charlie Tomlinson was Beckett’s Krapp. Andy Jones and Greg Malone play Lester and Henry MacPherson, two estranged brothers whose bitter confrontation is the subject of the play. The action takes place in St. John’s, on Craigmillar Avenue, a long, gently declining street in the West End that somehow sidestepped gentrification in the boom. The entire play takes place in the MacPhersons’ home.
Though Men of Misfortune is set in the recent past – at the very moment, in fact, that global oil prices tumbled and Newfoundland woke to the realization that it was fucked again – you couldn’t guess it from the living room, whose décor doesn’t seem to have changed since the 1970s. There’s an entertainment center with a record player. There’s a spoon rack on the wall. There’s a rotary telephone, though it doesn’t work. This well-tended home-in-aspic is increasingly creepy – a place where ghosts can get purchase and start to groan. At a certain point you realize, with a claustrophobic grimace, that there are no windows.
This is the house that Jones’ Lester inhabits. He’s the good son, the one who stays in his parents’ home after their deaths, and who displays their tastefully inurned cremains on the mantelpiece. Malone’s Henry is the bad son who left home long ago, and who comes back, out of the blue, for what he calls a short visit – three weeks, maybe four, maybe forever. Behind a thin mask of good-old-boy gregariousness, he’s a troubled man. He has issues with his parents: they didn’t love him; they may have abused him; they seem to have redacted him from the family photo albums. Our sympathies, at first, are with Lester, who justifiably resents Henry’s intrusion and is slightly scared of him besides. As the play continues, our sympathies shift, then shift again, as our understanding of the brothers and their past grows. The brothers who seem so starkly different at first come to see more and more alike. Above all, they’re both consummate liars.
We’ve seen these characters before – the buttoned-down bourgeois and his rough, down-on-his-luck Doppelgänger. Albee’s Zoo Story is the modern template: Lester and Henry are Peter and Jerry, superannuated and transplanted to St. John’s. And as is the case with Zoo Story, the bourgeois character eventually pops some buttons. The violence that Lester is capable of is first intimated early in the play, when Henry takes a catnap on the living room sofa, and Lester stands above him, looking down, holding a pillow in both hands, and visibly weighing the merits of a good smothering. Later on, he chooses a harder and sharper household object, the kind that normally stokes fires, and as he weighs it he wonders: to stave or not to stave? He chooses to stave, raises the poker tremulously above his head, and makes his way silently Henryward.
When you set out to write domestic Gothic you have some basic options. You can either choose invasion, where hostile forces from without break into the private space of the home; or you can choose haunting, where hostile forces, previously repressed, return from within. The virtue of a Doppelgänger narrative is that you can have both at once. At first, the play seems like a home invasion: Henry, dressed in his black leather jacket, seems like Poe’s raven, entering with the mien of a lord to terrorize his mild-mannered brother. But the urns on the mantelpiece suggest a ghost story, and gradually and artfully the play reveals Lester’s ghosts. They’re not just in the urns. At some point in the unfolding of the play, you begin to wonder if Henry might himself be one of them, if Lester has conjured up his brother’s specter as part of his self-chastisement. What elevates this play – makes it a significant work, one that deserves large local audiences and a life on future stages – is that it’s too canny in its uncanniness to tell you. You dwell in possibility.
Dedication, November 9, 2017, LSPU Hall
The greatest coup-de-théâtre in Ed Riche’s Dedication happened before the play’s action even began, when Nicole Rousseau, Artistic Animateur of the RCA Theatre Company, invited the audience to rise in welcome of the Lieutenant Governor. As the audience rustled to its feet and listened solemnly to a mashup of God Save the Queen and O Canada, we tacitly sided with the play’s central character and representative conservative, Field Marshal Douglas Haig. His antagonists’ minor rebellions lay not just ahead of us but beyond us. No audience member was so bold as to intimate that Frank Fagan is a donkey, so principled as to turn a back on the Crown's silver-haired, homuncular meat sack. The production made asses of the lot of us before the first cue had sounded.
Then the lights dimmed and the sound of exploding artillery shells and shattering glass and whinnying horses filled the theatre and the sounds of war built to a climax and the climax gave way, at length, to birdsong – epic giving way to pastoral and to the nominally reconciled world of Dedication.
The play’s action unfolds in the early hours of July 1, 1924, the day that the War Memorial is to be unveiled in downtown St. John’s. A painting of Queen Victoria hangs on the wall, presiding over the room a quarter century after her death. Islamic carpets lie on the floor, an efficient, pleasingly subtle sign of the breadth of the Empire. Visiting St. John’s to dedicate the Memorial, Field Marshal Douglas Haig (David Ley) wakes from unrestful sleep to learn that his batman, Turner, is unavailable to help him dress for the ceremony. Turner is having one of the crises he’s experienced ever since the Somme – crises that have been growing more frequent and intense with time, and that Haig attributes to a disarrangement of the inner ear (but that others more plausibly characterize as shell shock). In Turner’s stead, a young man, Charles Edgecombe (Edmund Stapleton), has been conscripted to serve. As Edgecombe assists Haig in the business of dressing (on his own, Haig struggles with his socks), the two men fall into conversation, and, inevitably, they discover that they are at odds. Edgecombe, a veteran who served in Murmansk in the war, is a working-class Newfoundlander who sympathizes with the Bolsheviks; Haig is a proud upper-class Englishman who fully anticipates that the next war will be against the Soviets, and he grows suspicious of his batman’s Bolshy proxy. But he is confident in his conservatism, for the most part more irritated than alarmed by the societal changes that have accelerated since the war and that are increasingly visible – in Edgecombe, to begin with, and then, and above all, in the spirited young woman, Geraldine Drover (Allison Kelly), who comes to interview him. She’s the Modern Age itself, a journalist, a novelist, a photographer. Outrageously, she believes in the right of women to vote. Haig, for his part, represents a social order in fast decline, sliding towards obsolescence in a way that he doesn’t fully grasp. In the play’s too-simple moral schema, we are meant to identify with Drover and Edgecombe as our contemporaries while respecting, however grudgingly, the self-possession and dignity of Haig, the Last of the Victorians.
More than once, Dedication reminded me of Katori Hall’s recent play The Mountaintop, which places Martin Luther King, Jr., in a hotel room on the night before his assassination. Both plays use the same neat trick of inventing an episode in the private life of a historical figure on the threshold of epochal events. In so doing they use the conventions of domestic drama, with its focus on private experience, to develop national themes. They also provide characters representing historically silenced constituencies with plausible opportunities to speak. In Hall’s The Mountaintop, a black hotel maid confronts King; in Dedication, Drover and Edgecombe confront Haig.
The epochal event at issue in Dedication – the unveiling of the Memorial – may seem small-bore in comparison to King’s assassination. But of course behind the Memorial lies the First World War, crucible of Newfoundland nationhood. If this play and John Estacio and Robert Chafe’s recent opera Ours are any guide, our dramas about the war have entered an anamorphic phase, portraying it not directly, as in Kevin Major’s No Man’s Land, but belatedly and obliquely. Dedication is concerned with trauma, be it mental, as in the case of the batman Turner, or physical: both Edgecombe and Drover’s brother were permanently wounded in the war. But it is more immediately concerned with how the war persists in public memory. The play examines the values encoded in what Pierre Nora called lieux de mémoire – sites where collective memory has petrified into the official version.
That such official versions are politically conservative is, frankly, old hat. Critical of the Memorial for ennobling war and including a woman only as an allegorical figure of Victory, Drover proposes instead a memorial to trauma, one that emphasizes the shattered bodies and lives of the soldiers and their families. (She reveals to Haig that she’s been to Weimar Germany, where she has acquainted herself, we infer, with the paintings of Otto Dix.) But already in 1928, Siegfried Sassoon characterized the Menin Gate, in Ypres, as mere pomp, a “pile of peace-complacent stone,” a “sepulchre of crime” that the “unheroic Dead” ought to deride. In short, although there may be some audience members who rouse themselves to bristle at Dedication’s impious attitude towards the War Memorial, there isn’t much about the play’s reflection on memorialization that strikes me as new. The play would have been more illuminating had it emphasized that Drover is not our intellectual contemporary but rather Haig’s, and that she is offering her own contribution to a debate about monuments and memory that was well underway in the 1920s.
Meanwhile, it’s curious that a play that casts Haig as a relic is itself so formally conservative. There's nothing in Dedication that would take Ibsen or Shaw by surprise. This circumstance is especially curious given Drover’s professed admiration for German modernism: we are, I think, meant to approve of Drover for her sympathy with the artistic avant-garde; ironic, then, that the character whose views on art Dedication seems most to endorse would find the play hopelessly unadventurous. I wondered if Dedication’s conservatism might be ironic, a case of the master’s tools being used to dismantle his house. I couldn’t persuade myself that it was.
But there are of course considerable pleasures to be had in watching an old-fashioned play well-staged. The production is full of grace notes. I thought it elegantly theatrical when Edgecombe, left momentarily alone in Haig’s apartment and grudgingly tidying the place, insolently drops the field marshal’s washcloth in a full bowl of water. The water splashes over the rim and spatters on the ground – a modest but vivid sign of Edgecombe’s impatience with the pother of dressing this sovereign-in-miniature. There’s an exquisite piece of business involving, of all things, sugar cubes (made all the richer when one remembers that the sugar cube was a nineteenth-century invention). Director Charlie Tomlinson has a canny sense of how seemingly small acts can have disproportionately large emotional effects – a subtlety to remember in this age of Curious-Incident-of-the-Dog-style spectacle.
The cast gives nuance and texture to characters that risk being overly schematic (an affair of overlapping triangles: England, Russia, Germany; officer, soldier, woman on the home front; upper-class, working, middle). In the role of Haig, David Ley is especially compelling. At times one aches to see Haig’s pomposity deflated: at his worst, he’s the kind of self-regarding twit that a satirist in the mould of Wilde or Stoppard would gleefully skewer. But Ley meticulously preserves Haig’s dignity, and this choice is ultimately the wiser one. Expressed in the play’s most brilliant line, Haig’s self-conception is damning enough.
Landline: St. John's to Calgary, January 26, 2017, LSPU Hall
At 4:45 on Wednesday afternoon, with daylight fading and the temperature dropping, I went downtown to the LSPU Hall. I was about to participate in a theatrical experiment, Landline: St. John’s to Calgary, created by Adrienne Wong and Dustin Harvey. I was to exchange texts with a stranger in Calgary as each of us meandered through our respective downtowns. We’d be listening simultaneously to an audio feed that would prompt us to think of old friends, and moments when we were lost, and experiences of unsettling change. Then we’d send one another texts in which we responded to these memories. We were free to lie: it was theatre.
I loved the idea from the moment I heard of it. Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City” sprang to mind, with its grand celebration of pedestrian creativity. If walking in the city is a speech act, which is Certeau’s claim, and if it draws from a bank of rhetorical devices, as he suggests, then surely one could join these speech acts together to write, as Certeau calls it, a “long poem of walking.” And how fascinating this walking poem would be if it had two writers, and if it unfolded not in one but in two cities at once – a double helix of a poem, my meandering through the winding maze of St. John’s contrasting, complementing, or competing with my scene partner’s procession through the strict Calgary grid. I might be climbing up Cathedral Street, with the decaying pile of the Masonic Temple on my right and the bombastic Anglican Cathedral on my left, while he was walking past Bankers Hall, sterile and gleaming on the Stephen Avenue Mall. What rhymes and what dissonances might we find?
Ideas about flânerie cribbed from Benjamin and Baudelaire and Poe were on my mind, too. I wanted to wander the city in the same spirit as the Painter of Modern Life, in search not of fugitive pleasure but of modernity itself – the eternal in the transitory and all that guff. My scene partner would be Poe’s man of the crowd, as glossed by Baudelaire; he or she would have the “unknown, half-glimpsed countenance” that would, on an instant, bewitch me. The texts we’d exchange would offer me those half-glimpses, and the streets of our paired cities would be the scene of our mutual pursuit, which would offer us teasing intimations of modernity.
And the Situationist psycho-geographers and Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore hoping to feel and yet not feeling the historical reverberations of some street in London: they were all in my head, too, as I walked down Victoria Street to the LSPU Hall early on Wednesday evening. So yes: my expectations were high. And my pretentiousness was intact.
The logistics of Landline were, as you can imagine, a challenge for the technical crew. At the Hall, the stage manager, the formidable Laura Huckle, instructed me to enter the number of a new contact, then send a text saying that I was standing by, then alert her when I got a reply. I was given a map of the town, and I was given sweet red woolen gloves threaded with silver that would allow me to text in the cold, and, because St. John’s is a small town, and chances of running into acquaintances are high, I was given a pin to wear on my overcoat that said, more or less, “Don’t talk to me; I’m in the middle of a show” (a fuck-off-I’m-an-artist pin; I wanted to keep it). And Dustin Harvey himself, charming and ingratiating, fitted me with the iPad mini that would supply the audio feed. And then everything was ready, and the audio feed began, and following its instructions I set out into the night.
My instructions were to wander up the street until I felt the pull of somewhere else. I wandered down instead, taking the stairway to Duckworth Street, where I was obliged to turn, and turned right, towards India Gate on the right and Basho on the left. I turned right again, up Cathedral Street, and started climbing the hill, trying to negotiate the snow on the sidewalks that our town’s council members, that agglutination of dunces, can’t figure out for the life of them how to clear. The voice told me to look at the city with fresh eyes. I gave it my best shot, though the light wasn’t good. The voice told me to look about and see if there were any other people around, but by then I was on Gower Street, and on cold Wednesday evenings in January, as it turns out, Gower Street is deserted.
The voice on the iPad was mild but insistent. It said, “Think of an old friend.” It said, “Find a place that reminds you of that old friend.” “You have one minute to find a place.” “You have thirty seconds.” “The time is up. Now wave. Wave across the street; wave as though you were seeing your old friend; wave. Now send a text to your scene partner as though you were greeting your friend.” I obligingly thought of a friend – Rob Finley – and found a yellow door that reminded me of him, or that might as well remind me of him (I had to be quick: time was pressing, the voice was telling me). I was obedient, but only to a point: I didn’t wave when the voice instructed me to wave. But when I was prompted to, I texted my scene partner.
I’d like to say that while reflecting on the intellectual backdrop of Landline, I’d also given some careful thought to the character I might adopt. The opportunity for play was there; I could pose as anyone that my imagination could conjure. I could be a city councillor, and I could use my texts to hawk the St. John’s experience, because the city is beautiful right now, it is, with its snow-covered sidewalks and its roads stained with the blood of pedestrians. I could be the Provost of the University. I could be married to a dolphin. But, unfortunately, “Middle-aged English prof,” I texted. My fingers were cold, even in their red gloves. We began to text back and forth, getting into the spirit of the thing. But soon enough the voice in our ears was telling us that we had only seconds left, and then we had to bring our conversation to a halt, and listen again to the voice.
It took me most of the performance to realize that the best way to experience Landline would be to treat that mild, implacable voice as an authority to resist. Why should I defer to it? When it instructed me to remember experiences that I’d found life-changing and perspective-altering, I should have pushed back against its idea of life as a matter of crisis and epiphany. Or I should have asked, “How does sharing those memories through these texts change our helical poem?” and only shared them if I like the rhyme. Or I should just have said, “I’ll travel through these streets exactly as I choose, and think exactly what I want. Don’t take me for a fool.”
It dawned on me that as Landline has been conceived, with coordination between the St. John’s and Calgary performer-pedestrian achieved through a synchronized recording that instructs each listener to do as it commands, it risks subverting Certeau’s idea of resistant urban speech acts. For Certeau, the pedestrian’s use of urban space is political: it’s a means of defying the urban planners who have particular, narrow ideas about how that space will be used. Maybe Landline brings that political contest into focus, with the voice as a proxy for those urban planners, and the listener/pedestrians as subjects who must learn to rebel. To perform means to carry into effect, which implies that a performer is the medium by which someone else’s intention is expressed. Maybe Landline tacitly calls upon its pedestrians not to be performers.
In any case, I felt oppressed for the hour of my performance, not only by the commands in my ear but also by the thought, which I know is idiotic, that the creators of Landline were keeping an eye on me, tracking my movements, maybe through my phone. At one point in the hour I went into the lobby of a building to warm up (I wasn’t prepared for the cold). I felt like a fugitive. That’s not how I normally feel when I’m walking in St. John’s.
But if in this respect Landline was unnerving, it also offered me a glimpse of theatre, if it’s right to call it theatre, of a kind that I’ve never seen before. The brilliance of the premise is that it gives pedestrians in different cities the opportunity to write simultaneous and complementary spatial poems. It’s possible that Wong and Harvey haven’t yet found the right foundation for this creative exercise. But give them credit: they’re thinking subtly and adventurously about how technology, urban space, and the arts can converge. I’d walk with them again in a heartbeat.
Tibb’s Eve, December 2, 2016, LSPU Hall
Four young people meet on a night when the moon is full. Under its sway, their inhibitions lift, and in the unsmooth course of the next two hours, their relationships disintegrate and reassemble themselves in new patterns. So far, so familiar. But rather than end with the lovers re-paired and reunited and on the short path to marriage, this play shades into darker and more ambiguous terrain. Call it A Midwinter Night’s Dream. Do the characters enjoy the conventional happy ending of comedy? Only if you squint.
Step Taylor’s Tibb’s Eve is as ambitious a new work as any I’ve seen onstage in St. John’s. It offers a serious, nuanced commentary on cultural change in outport Newfoundland. Far from those boosterish plays that might have been drafted by a chamber of commerce and that offer their audiences consoling and self-congratulatory nationalist fables, it’s tough-minded and unsentimental and even despairing. These qualities may keep it from becoming popular: although the applause last night was warm there was, unusually for a production at the Hall, no standing ovation, and my impression was that the audience didn’t know exactly how to feel about what it saw. But Tibb’s Eve is sincere, honourable, smart, and sly: I didn’t love it, but I liked it a lot, and I expect that the audience will find that it sticks with them.
The play unfolds at a shed party on Tibb’s Eve in the fictional town of Heart’s Harbour, Newfoundland. Trevor (Colin Furlong) has returned to his home province from Montreal, and reunites with his old friend, Ronnie (Mark Power), master of the shed and the party’s host. Trevor’s return isn’t triumphant: he’s escaping something, and seems damaged if not quite broken. He can barely bring himself to step across the shed’s threshold. And what he hoped might be a refuge turns out to be something more equivocal. You can’t enjoy a homecoming when home secretly resents you for leaving in the first place. Ronnie, a proud bayman, thinks that the citizens of St. John’s are snobs, and if that’s his opinion of fellow Newfoundlanders, you can imagine his attitude towards an émigré who left the province altogether – and who went to the hipster midden of Montreal, no less, rather than to Fort Mac. Even so, in honour of their long friendship and in the spirit of the evening, Ronnie welcomes Trevor to the shed, introducing him first to his girlfriend Molly (Allison Kelly) and then to a drug new to the region, splurge, which, Ronnie says, promises a good, psychotropic trip, perfect for Tibb’s Eve. As soon as Trevor takes a dose of the drug, the play’s realist contract relaxes, and at that moment, the fourth character of the play, Jess (Miranda Power), appears onstage. She may be an embodiment of Tibb’s Eve; she may be another human resident of Heart’s Harbour; she may be both. The play doesn’t let us know immediately. But when Trevor meets her, he’s smitten.
The play’s commentary on contemporary Newfoundland is at its most insistent in its pairing of Ronnie and Trevor. I was reminded more than once of Henry James’ ghost story “The Jolly Corner,” in which a man returns to his old home in New York City and encounters a ghost of the man that, but for his having left, he might have become. Trevor and Ronnie are likewise doppelgangers: the Newfoundlander who went away; the Newfoundlander who stayed. The play is unsentimental about each of these alternatives. Ronnie, a pipe-fitter who works at Bull Arm, appears to have found a way to stay in Heart’s Harbour even as most of his contemporaries have moved to Mount Pearl or, like Trevor, have left the province altogether. At first he seems triumphant in his shed – the steadfast local. But as the play unfolds, its portrait of him darkens. He is struggling not very successfully with alcoholism; he’s secretly, and then not so secretly, unhappy in his relationship with Molly; and, as the play nears its climax and he senses his power over the shed waning, he turns on Trevor and starts hurling homophobic insults. He doesn’t precisely believe in what he's saying, but his anger is real: what he means in calling Trevor gay is that his friend has betrayed the outport, assimilating with the very cultural forces that are making life in Heart’s Harbour so precarious: to be cosmopolitan is to be queer. Trevor, meanwhile, is comparably unhappy in Montreal: he’s burdened with debt; he lives in a cramped apartment; and he feels deeply out of place. “It’s a nice place to visit,” he says of Montreal at one point. When he’s asked where home is, if not there, he has no answer. Not Heart’s Harbour, anyways.
All four actors are excellent in their roles, though Mark Power and Furlong, who have considerably more to work with, make stronger impressions. As Ronnie, Power immediately won over the audience: it was astonishing to watch. In mid-nineteenth-century New York, according to contemporary reports, the actor Frank Chanfrau appeared on a stage in the Bowery in the role of Mose, the Bowery B’hoy. The play was a forgettable comedy on urban themes. But when Chanfrau began speaking in the vernacular of the New York working classes, the audience paused for a moment in stunned silence and then broke out in cheers: there they were, represented. I caught the echo of that feeling last night as I watched the audience watch Power. He was the hero of the first part of the night; the laughter was raucous. And it was fascinating to feel the temperature of the room change as the play revealed the character’s complexities. Unlike the Bowery B’hoy, the bayman of Tibb’s Eve isn’t a simple comic type, and by the climax of the play, when he had become, by a certain measure, unsympathetic, the audience was uneasy: I call that a spectacular success. Meanwhile, after only ever having seen Furlong as Joey Smallwood in the wooden Colony of Unrequited Dreams, I was thrilled to see him play a human being. The guy can act.
As the echoes of Midsummer Night’s Dream suggest, Tibb’s Eve is highly if subtly conscious of its theatrical antecedents. I suspect, in its portrait of a traditional Newfoundland under threat of supersession, a debt to Jez Butterworth’s recent play Jerusalem, with Ronnie taking the place of “Rooster” Byron. (But Taylor is harder on Ronnie than Butterworth is on “Rooster,” a point in Tibb’s Eve’s favour.) More profoundly, the play excavates the invented tradition of Tibb’s Eve and the fictional saint it honours, an excavation that reveals a surprising theatrical connection. As Jess points out in the play, although the Tibb’s Eve tradition is of recent vintage, the term “Tibb” isn’t. Check the Oxford English Dictionary, and you’ll see that a tibb is slang for a young woman. What’s more, “formerly,” the OED says, “Tib” was “a common name for a woman of the working classes,” the term “Tom and Tib” equivalent to “Jack and Jill.” There was a sense of sexual impropriety in the term, too. A seventeenth-century phrasebook defined a Tib as a “mulier sordida” – a dirty woman – and gives as example the crude phrase, “He struck a Tib, and down fell Tom.” This lexical history is grist that the play admits to milling. But the link to the early modern stage is more relevant, and more interesting. Tib was a comic vernacular type in early-modern plays: she shows up in Gammer Gurton’s Needle, for instance, as the much-abused servant to Gammer Gurton herself. In John Heywood’s The Merry Play between Johan Johan, Tyb his Wife, and Sir Johan, the Priest, which dates from the early 1530s, the wife Tyb is a manipulative bully, unmistakably a precursor to Shakespeare’s shrewish Kate. Tibb’s Eve responds to this misogynistic tradition in the character of Jess, both the spirit of Tibb’s Eve and a working-class woman with a bad reputation. The play dismantles the stereotype and offers, in its place, something more nuanced.
Or at least it tries to. To my mind, this aspect was one of the most interesting but also least successful parts of the play, a moment when its reach exceeds its grasp. The problem is that unlike Ronnie, who starts as a familiar type and evolves into a psychologically plausible character, Jess doesn’t fully escape being an abstraction. The play introduces her when Trevor is high on splurge, and in those opening scenes, when it’s not clear if she’s real or a figment of his imagination, she’s a manic pixie dream girl of a fairly basic, woeful kind, speaking flirtingly, teasingly, and gnomically in all the usual ways. Later she too becomes more complex, but the play periodically insists on redeploying her as a symbol of Woman, yanking the type back into the foreground and undercutting the talented Miranda Power’s attempts to set Jess in a fully human register. Is the problem that the playwright is a man? The character of Molly is similarly undercooked, despite Kelly’s warm and funny performance.
Even so, the play was exciting to watch - ambitious, thoughtful, and often moving. The production company, Mindless Theatrics, is new to me. But they’ve made me a convert. I’ll gladly see whatever they do next.
Fun Home (Part Two), with Chris Lockett, 2 November 2016, "It's All Narrative" blog
Sexy Laundry, 29 October 2016, Barbara Barrett Theatre
On a lost weekend in a lurid hotel, a middle-aged couple, Alice (Janet Edmonds) and Henry (Geoff Adams), try to rejuvenate their marriage. As Sexy Laundry opens, they’re lying on the bed with an open copy of Sex for Dummies, trying to follow its suggestions for exciting erotic play. But before they can get in the mood, they have to confess to their frustrated dreams, their fears of mortality, and their sneaking suspicion that their marriage has atrophied past the point of recovery. At the end of all that, if they can find a new footing in their relationship, they may not have the wild sex the book promises, but they may just make love.
The plot, with all its minor complications, has the inevitable and predictable progress of a morality play. You could map out its progress from A to Z as readily and schematically as the playwright Michele Riml did. Suspense, in other words, is no more the issue here than it is in Everyman, and I won’t patronize you by withholding the information that things work out just fine. The interest doesn’t lie in the plot but rather, at least in theory, in the insights into the characters that it affords. Who are these people? How have they arrived at this pass, and how will they renegotiate the quotidian intimacies of middle-class marriage? How will they re-enchant a relationship grown sterile? How will they make laundry sexy?
You need to have some patience with the premise – to accept the idea that the quiet desperation of a straight, white, middle-classed, middle-aged, married couple deserves your sympathy and attention in a world that includes Aleppo. That’s not impossible – human life in all its permutations is interesting – but the order becomes taller when those frustrations amount to worries about weight gain and limits on professional advancement. And even those banal concerns might be compelling if their very banality were the subject, or if there were any hint of awareness on the characters’ part, or the play’s, that their lives are ludicrously privileged, that it’s perverse for the characters, in their middle-class comfort, to feel dissatisfied. But the play lacks this moral seriousness, and as a result, though it’s often momentarily funny, ultimately it feels empty. Or rather, it feels full of something that does it no credit.
To demand that a play like this have such moral seriousness is to hold it to a standard alien to the calculation that went into its making. The play is itself the tacky hotel that the playwright juxtaposes against the honest middle-class home: the script is a professionally crafted piece of machinery with its eye squarely on the middlebrow theatregoer. It betrays this commercial calculation at every step, and not only with the broadness of its comedy. It betrays it, for instance, when it glibly slips past the play’s one truly difficult moment. This moment arrives when the couple has reached the deepest point in the comic trough, when Henry has (inevitably) called Alice a bitch who can go fuck herself, and she’s (inevitably) retreated into the bathroom in anger. In a script that addressed its dramatic contract honestly, what would follow is a still more difficult scene, with Alice challenging Henry on his capacity to think of her in such ugly terms, and extracting, eventually, his full and frank apology. But negotiating such a difficult terrain would be risky. Far better to have her emerge from the bathroom dressed as a dominatrix ready to whip Henry’s bottom. It would be giving the play too much credit to suggest that at this moment she’s parodying his vision of her as a bitch. No such thing. Leather’s just funny, that’s all.
For my money, the dominatrix scene testifies to something unseemly about the play’s gender politics. Before reconciliation is possible, the characters both have to reach a point of crisis that reorients them on a truer path. For Henry, that crisis arrives when he insults his wife: he’s lanced the boil of his frustrations and the contents have sprayed out into the theatre. For Alice, it’s when she catches a glimpse of herself in her dominatrix gear, and she bursts into tears over her self-betrayal. Henry’s reorientation begins, in other words, with a moment of real cruelty to Alice, while hers begins a performance of cruelty designed to restore spice to their sex lives. The play ends with them using the pet name they’ve arrived at for Henry’s penis. That salute to the cock, however ironically coded, seems worryingly true to the play’s underlying assumptions about marriage.
The larger question that the play poses is this: how do two talented actors inhabit such a hotel room? Janet Edmonds and Geoff Adams preserve their dignity even at the broadest moments of the comedy, as when they’ve blindfolded themselves in the name of erotic play, but then can’t find one another. I quickly liked Edmonds, whose Alice is volatile and intelligent. It took me longer to warm to Adams: at the beginning of his performance he was so over-pronouncing his lines that I thought he might be Julie Nesrallah. But by the play’s dénouement, either my ear had become accustomed to this exaggerated elocution or he’d altered his delivery. I think the latter; in either case his performance finally won me over. Following Henry’s moral reorientation – with that ugliness out of the way – Adams endeared himself to me with the tenderness and sincerity of his performance. It occurred to me in retrospect that Adams might have been over-pronouncing his lines by design, finding a correlative for his character’s pinched and over-cautious life in his manner of speaking. If so, it was a daring move, risking the audience’s sympathy in the name of realizing a character – a far more daring move than the play itself ever makes. Whatever the case, between them, Adams and Edmonds rescue the play. Despite the pedestrian types that the script requires them to embody, you can’t help yourself. They’re likeable, and you like them.
Stranger to Hard Work, 27 October 2016, LSPU Hall
Last night I went down to the Hall in a methylmercurial mood. It’s been a strange week in this province, with Nalcor threatening to replay the old, familiar drama of modernization only to relent at the eleventh hour, our Eloquent Leader having returned from his errand in the sunshine state to hash things out with the Innu elders. Now we’re in a strange landscape. Have the elders prevailed? Dare we hope? Or is this a ploy to buy time, to let the spotlight shift? Does Dwight Ball have a heart, or a conscience?
But you wouldn’t know about the political drama from the mood at the Hall. The place was packed and cheerful; the audience had come ready to laugh. And for good reason: Cathy Jones is in town with her one-woman show, Stranger to Hard Work. Just in time.
Four parts stand-up and one part sketch comedy, the show runs a brisk 75 minutes. Jones cycles through various characters to paint a portrait of the life of a single woman at 60 – or as she puts it, the age when no one wants you to sit on their face anymore. At one moment she fantasizes aloud about a new boyfriend, and says that she can picture herself with a 38-year-old, why not, or a 39-year-old, or maybe a 40-year-old; and the age of this notional inamorato keeps climbing and climbing up to the peak of old manhood as her inner fantasist negotiates with her gloomy sense of the possible. The play is full of those vignettes, exquisitely written and performed. It’s a rare pleasure to see middle-aged womanhood represented on the stage – or anywhere else, given the force of the Cult of Youth – and a rarer pleasure still to see it represented as foul-mouthed, satiric, and bawdy. I laughed, a lot.
But then, Jones has always been an electric presence. With her perfectly pitched mixture of good humour and mischief – I’m just goofing around – she was the warmest and funniest performer of This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Stranger to Hard Work is no stranger to her strengths. At various moments she channels the heroines of early film comedy – Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson, or Jean Arthur as Babe Bennett, or at any rate one of those “fast-talking career gals” whose dialogue hurtles past so quickly that you’re always two witticisms behind. What a career Jones could have had in screwball. (And why the hell hasn’t some Newfoundland film producer greenlit a feature for her? Someone tell Paul Pope or Barb Doran to wake up and get on it.)
Occasionally, the show hits some false notes. A vignette involving Jones’s meeting with financial advisers at CIBC turns momentarily sour when they urged her to overcome her scruples and invest her money. Forget ethical banking, she’s told. Any investment will involve “sending black people to very hot places;” that’s just the way the world works. For just a moment the play shifts into a political register, but it’s over too soon and it’s not political enough. What’s it doing there? It’s meant as protest, but it’s a protest without teeth. Call it liberal satire. We all know it’s awful, it’s all very awful, but what can we do? “Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter,” and tragedy becomes a punchline. Methylmercury in fish is bad, it’s very bad, but what can we do? Somebody tell a joke.
But predominating over these rare discordant moments is Jones’ sharply written and expertly performed observational comedy. There’s a literary quality to Jones’ writing that I haven’t fully appreciated before, and not just when she recites a pitch-perfect parody of a Rabbittown Bildungsroman. (Jones: publish it.) Her jokes are immaculately crafted. She’s such a tall poppy because she’s so spectacularly talented.
At the climax of the evening, she put on a grey wig and a fur coat, and it quickly dawned on us that an iconic character of Canadian comedy was about to appear, minus the loud old gossip who used to cling to her arm. The audience murmured in anticipation, and applauded when Mrs. Enid stood before us. I clapped, too. It was so brazen an act of pandering to audience expectation that it was a delight.
And there she tottered, old Mrs. Enid, now a resident in a nursing home, indefatigably cracking jokes about dementia and dentures and blowjobs. The R-rated version of the character, so bawdy she’d make our prim national broadcaster poop its prim pants, was also more nuanced than her merely tart-tongued TV version: for the first time, I felt that Mrs. Enid wasn’t a type but a character, however comic the register. And the audience loved it. I haven’t heard so many hooting and squealing primates since the last Tarzan movie.
Celebrity culture has many sins, especially in Newfoundland, where it’s hard to avoid those needy people. (That new commercial just about killed me, with its local eminences all winking and leering and begging the viewer to come hither). But insofar as that culture guarantees Jones an appreciative audience as long as she cares to perform, it has its virtues, too. Go to the Hall. See Cathy Jones. Laugh.
And then turn your attention back to the urgent business of Muskrat Falls.
Fun Home, Part One: Just a Little Introduction, with Chris Lockett, 23 October 2016, "It's All Narrative" blog
St. John’s Shorts, 24 September 2016, Barbara Barrett Theatre
On Thursday, I went to the second night of St. John’s Shorts, the festival for one-act plays currently running at the Barbara Barrett theatre in the Arts and Culture Centre. Each night the festival is offering two programs, and in each program there are two plays, so on Thursday, as on Wednesday, I saw four one-acts. What luxury. The festival runs until October 2, and if you live in St. John’s and love theatre, you should put everything aside and go. Show the festival enough love and maybe the companies will make it an annual tradition. We should be so lucky.
The first play on Thursday’s program was an August Strindberg two-hander. In The Stronger, one character talks and talks while the other doesn’t talk at all. It’s a substantial technical challenge for actors: the talker has to find a reason to keep going in the face of silence; the listener has to find ways to communicate without the vehicle of words. In Thursday’s production, directed by Jackie Hynes, the two actors met the challenge with wit and verve.
Written and set in the 1880s, the play unfolds in a café for women. Miss Y (Monica Walsh), an actor, is at a table alone, drinking a beer and reading illustrated magazines. Mrs. X (Natalia Hennelly), once an actor and now a wife and mother, is popping in for a moment’s self-indulgence after a day of shopping for gifts for her children and husband. The two women are long-time friends, but when the play begins it’s clear that there’s tension between them: Miss Y is less than pleased to see Mrs. X, and Mrs. X is visibly uncertain of her ground, trying eagerly to ingratiate herself.
In doing so she reveals the reasons for the tension: a man, her husband, with whom Miss Y may have had an affair and with whom she may still be in love. Mrs. X talks her way into believing so, anyway, and the silent Miss Y doesn’t gainsay her. But her silence leaves the matter uncertain, and Walsh is cunning enough in her performance not to give the matter away with a flash of anger or guilt. She preserves a Delphic ambiguity about the matter. And it may be the case that the answer isn’t important – that the real concerns of The Stronger lie elsewhere.
The play implies in its title that the drama onstage is a contest of strength. Mrs. X eventually characterizes herself as the stronger of the two. But she may be wrong, and the brag itself may prove it. The play is best understood in the interrogative mode, a study of the relative power of words and silence, in the first instance, and of the paths available to women in the late nineteenth century, in the second. Who’s stronger: the woman who devotes herself to a fickle husband; or the woman who devotes herself to a fickle profession?
Strindberg’s plays often stray into misogyny: I understand him as a nineteenth-century Neil Labute. So I was surprised by the nuance of The Stronger. There’s the potential even to find radicalism in it. Mrs. X justifies her husband’s affairs with a monetary vocabulary: the more he’s desired by other women, she says, the more she values him. That’s the logic of the stock market. In literary works that recur to this kind of economic imagery, it’s more often the case that women are cast in the role of credit – a volatile creature whom men compete to woo, and who can raise them up or smash them down. And in light of the play’s inversion of this convention, it’s not a large step to a queer reading of the play, with the husband just a screen onto which Mrs. X projects her desire for Miss Y. To my eye, Walsh and Hennelly were alive to this possibility, so that the play was more than a contest of strength. In the safe precincts of the women-only café, it was also a flirtation, a courtship.
The other play on the program, Work in Progress, is new, written and directed by the formidably talented Jana Gillis. Her production is blessed with a great cast, with a standout performance from the hilarious Andrew Tremblett. The play begins beautifully, with a surreal job interview that parodies the absurd rituals of office culture. The scene wouldn’t be out of place in Ionesco or Dilbert, and it launches a rapid-fire series of comic vignettes between Tremblett and Emily Corcoran (also excellent). A man, always named Chad, meets a woman, always named Stacy. But in one instance they’re office workers, in another they’re partying on a dance floor, in a third they’re in the army, with Chad as the sergeant and Stacy as the new recruit. The actors get to showcase their comic timing and their ability to leap from one character type to another. After these vignettes, action in a more conventional, realist register begins. An academic (David Feehan) obsessed with his work enters, mulling over his notes on the mysteries of human relationships. A prospective research assistant intrudes (Catherine Vielguth), and she takes advantage of his extreme social awkwardness to talk her way into the job. Periodically the scenes between the academic and his assistant share the stage with further absurd vignettes involving Chad and Stacy. For a while there are two contrasting theatrical registers at work, the realistic and the surreal, and it’s exhilarating trying to figure out the puzzle of the play. Gradually the two registers converge.
But when they do, the play loses its way and its momentum. The academic is too much in his head; the research assistant offers him the possibility of love; it’s clear from the moment the play articulates its conflicts that it can only end one way. The play becomes conventionally anti-intellectual. Do you think? Then how can you feel? The either-or-ness of these head-versus-heart dramas needs a strong dose of both-and, or a good kick, or both.
Still, the play’s own title offers the reminder that this is a work site. The first half of the play is as sharp and funny as anything I’ve seen this year, and of the new scripts in St. John’s Shorts, it’s the one that takes best advantage of theatre’s possibilities. I’m looking forward to seeing Gillis’ future work: she’s the real thing.
At first blush, George Bernard Shaw’s comedietta Village Wooing, the third play of the night, seems to be on the same themes as Work in Progress. Two people meet on the lounge deck of the Duke of Patagonia, a Pleasure Ship presently crossing the Red Sea. Z (Marie Jones) is a chatty young attendant from a village shop on the Wiltshire Downs; A (Patrick Foran) is an intellectual in the cruise line’s employ, writing guidebooks in the Marco Polo series. They meet when Z plops down on the deck chair next to A, interrupting his work with her steady stream of comments. He’s exasperated, and condescending, and dismissive, until, gradually, he’s charmed. Anyone can see where this is going. The romance may begin when Z seeks out A, but eventually, the alphabet resumes its usual course, and A goes to Z.
Shaw being Shaw, the play is more sophisticated and less sentimental than it first seems. Through A and Z, Shaw puts a number of terms into motion: labour, capital, contemporary technology, the global and the local. Shaw’s nominal intellectual proves to be as much a part of the capitalist system as the shop attendant. A isn’t indulging in grand intellectual work, writing a novel or theatre criticism (for instance); instead he’s producing guidebooks for the idle rich. He has to extrude 2000 words a day, turning non-European cultures into exotic spectacles for the leisure class, or, like Charlie Chaplin at the assembly line, he’ll fall behind and put his job in jeopardy. The play’s fundamental concern turns out to be how to live a fulfilling life under capitalism. It’s a characteristically thoughtful play, nuanced and witty. And this production is a pleasure to watch: of all the plays in the festival, it’s the one that best conjures its worlds of ship and shop.
Still, a Shaw script offers peculiar challenges for the actors trying to animate its characters, given the characters’ Shavian propensity to dissertate aloud. Village Wooing vindicates Arthur Miller’s criticism of Shaw, whose major characters, Miller wrote, are “too completely obsessed with the issues that are being set forth. One of the signs of an abrogation of regular psychology is that people stay on the theme…. You read Shaw’s plays and see how rarely people get off the subject.” Faced with the singlemindedness of Shaw’s characters, their unlikely monomania, how does one make them believable? The trick may be to pause, to stumble, to race – to make it clear that staying on the theme is a triumph of concentration, repression, strategy. Marie Jones is certainly creditable in the role of Z, more of a match for A than she first seems, more clear-eyed and more calculating. And Patrick Foran is amusing in the role of the often buffoonish, self-complacent A. He succeeds in making the spectacular transformation of his character seem less improbable than it probably is. But neither actor achieves the difficult alchemy of transmuting Shaw’s abstract: they amuse you, but they never fully persuade you that characters like A and Z could exist outside of the alphabet.
The final play of the evening, Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare, is a chestnut that’s always a pleasure to eat – which is lucky, because it’s often on the menu. An actor (Chris Panting) finds himself backstage at a theatre whose stage manager (Irene Duma) gives him the unsettling news that that the lead actor has just been incapacitated and that he, as understudy, needs to step into the role. But what role, and which play? The stage manager won’t tell him, and neither will anyone else. Then the curtain goes up. It’s turns out that he’s in a Noel Coward play – not Private Lives but the other one, the one he doesn’t know. Just as he’s getting the rhythm, the play turns into Hamlet, and when he realizes that he’s playing the melancholy Dane, he tries gamely to remember the melancholy lines. Then an actor shows up with two trashcans, and steps inside one of them, and Shakespeare mutates into Beckett – but not Endgame, and not Waiting for Godot, either. The other one – the one with the nose picker. He has no idea what that play is. The premise that we’re privy to an actor’s stress dream allows Durang to parody various playwrights and to make various funny if not-very-sharp satiric points: that actors don’t understand much of Shakespeare; that Beckett’s plays are weird. It’s fabulous.
This production is good enough: the pace is brisk and the actors are beguiling. Still, I’d like to have seen a more deftly calibrated comic ensemble. Panting’s performance is surprisingly subdued: his panic is highly internalized; even his subconscious is repressed. It’s an interesting choice. But rather than bring the other actors into alignment with her lead, the director, Janet O’Reilly, has calculated that the proper counterbalance is thick slices of ham. It’s a mistake, but the play is short and the cast charismatic enough that the result is just fine. The ham glistened. The audience laughed. I ate the meal served, and had a good time.
St. John’s Shorts, 22 September 2016, Barbara Barrett Theatre
St. John’s Shorts launched tonight at the Barbara Barrett Theatre in the Arts and Culture Centre. Various companies in town had the brilliant notion of collaborating on a festival of one-acts, then had the discipline to bring it to fruition. Each program has two one-act plays, and each evening has two programs; tonight I went to both, seeing four one-acts in all.
Some of these are new work by local playwrights; others are older plays that one doesn’t often see on the stages of St. John’s. I saw a Frayn tonight; a Strindberg and a Shaw open tomorrow. This evening, alongside the Frayn, there were three new plays. The combination of older works and new is bracing – innovation and tradition side by side, commenting on each other.
The two plays that opened the festival have starkly different tempers, but both describe the experiences of young people dealing for the first time with the challenges of love and grief. One Thing (by Andrea Dunne) and Waking Brian (by Stephen Jefford and Darren Ivany) seem headed towards a wedding and a funeral, respectively, though they don’t necessarily reach those destinations.
Dunne’s One Thing was the highlight of the evening. The play follows a vivacious Newfoundlander named Faith and her lover, Bradley, an Englishman in the charmingly self-abnegating mode. She aspires to be an actor; he has the bizarre good fortune to be a working genealogist. They meet while she’s studying in England for the fall semester. The play opens with the pair holding one another and glowing from their first night of sex, and it follows them as this potentially trivial hookup ripens into love and then threatens to rot.
Faith (played by Sarah Browne) is the more complex of the two characters. When she and Bradley (Simon Alteen) confess their feelings to one another, she moves from Newfoundland to England to be with him. In doing so, she sacrifices more than he does, and the disparity tells. She misses her home and friends and she’s not enamoured of the United Kingdom (“We can honeymoon in that place where they talk like leprechauns, or else maybe in that place where they talk like Groundskeeper Willie,” she says, in a moment of bitterness). She’s not sure that what she stands to gain – a rumpled English genealogist who plans to serve toxic-green cake at their wedding – is worth what she stands to lose. But if in this respect she earns the audience’s sympathy, she’s not altogether admirable, either, and Browne’s performance bravely embraces Faith’s frequent bursts of selfishness and insensitivity. Bradley is a less convincingly realized character. He’s sincerely in love with Faith and he wants domestic bliss – but not, it seems, much more. Alteen is charming, and he convincingly embodies Bradley’s decency and humour, but he can’t overcome the fact that Bradley’s the kind of man who’d live with his mother – in Albany. From where I sat the Newfoundlander should quickly have eaten this moist Englishman alive – or else have left him for one of those English wits in the reptilian mode, with cold eyes, darting tongue, and a gift for epigrams – a lover altogether more worthy of her.
Waking Brian, One Thing’s companion piece, is spoken by a character deep in mourning for his best friend, a man who recently died an ugly death after a night of drug- and alcohol-fueled excess. It’s a study of grief that convincingly maps that emotion’s complexity, all the more tangled because the speaker is in love with his dead friend’s girlfriend.
The play is shorter than One Thing – something between a long monologue and a short play – and its script isn’t as polished. There are crisp lines that speak to the talent of the playwrights, but there are also overgrown ones that need pruning. The playwrights have a taste for vivid imagery in the manner of Tennessee Williams, but this particular strain of verbal exuberance doesn’t comfortably fit the character, a St. John’s Jimmy Porter. Even so, Waking Brian is an affecting piece of work. Ivany is an actor of great intensity, highly watchable, and at his best when he keeps that intensity under tight control. When he gives it free rein, it’s not always in the best interests of the script. Still, he’s always engaging and, in those moments of quiet, barely contained intensity, also deeply moving.
The second program of the evening paired Michael Frayn’s Sleepers with Jon Aylward’s Play Dead – two plays on the theme of the restless dead, and two plays that juxtapose high art and low to considerable comic effect. Frayn’s play is a bagatelle – light and funny, Beckett's Play minus the mistress and played for laughs. In a cathedral tomb, the recumbent effigies of Geoffrye (Michael Smith) and his wife Matilda (Laura Huckle), aristocrats who died centuries ago, retain the couple’s consciousness. They snipe at one another like the oldest of married couples. Smith and Huckle are well-matched as the bickering pair, and the script recognizes its own inconsequentiality: it’s delightfully brisk, over before you know it.
Play Dead, the play that closed the evening, has the virtue of a singularly witty premise. I once saw a community production of Macbeth and, as the supernumeraries fumbled and the principals stumbled, concluded that it’s not a play amateurs are equipped to stage. I started having unpleasant flashbacks at the beginning of Play Dead, as too many actors crowded onto a too-tiny stage and began ineptly declaiming Banquo and Macbeth’s lines in the first witch scene. I wondered if I could slip out undetected (not likely). But it quickly became apparent that we were watching a scene-within-a-scene – a rehearsal of Macbeth going badly awry. The play’s would-be visionary director (Darnell Johnson) is struggling to control his cast of incompetents and prima donnas as he shepherds his production towards opening night. The prospects of a triumph recede when one of his actors, the venerable old coot playing Duncan (Doug Boyce), keels over dead in the middle of the rehearsal. They recede further when the old coot wakes up, with a reassuring command of his lines and a disturbing taste for brains. The plot thickens, then thickens some more. It’s not Shaun of the Dead; it’s not even the 2011 Cuban zom-com Juan of the Dead; but it has charms of its own. The evening ended with the actors and technicians all red in tooth and claw, threatening the audience more convincingly than Peter Handke ever managed. Publikumsbeschimpfung has nothing on Publikumsfressen.
Krapp’s Last Tape, 16 January 2016, LSPU Hall
Today I saw the matinee performance of Krapp's Last Tape at the LSPU Hall. The show was sold out, and I hadn't bought a ticket, and I stood plaintive at the door hoping that someone somewhere was at that very moment falling on the ice and would leave his ticket unclaimed. But I was late to that party, too: there were five ticketless people ahead of me, all likewise hoping for serious accidents to befall ticket-holders. Luckily for us the staff at the Hall dug up some extra chairs and admitted us (all but one, who pleading claustrophobia backed out the door and ran down the street). A sold-out production of a Beckett play: how fantastic is that, and how much do you love the local theatre scene?
Charlie Tomlinson plays Krapp. I've seen him before in the role: last year, he and the director Nicole Rousseau staged the play at Tomlinson's house, and I was lucky enough to get wind of it and see it. The current production reflects months of further work and study on their part and is a corresponding improvement on the last - which was already deeply impressive. What struck me most about Tomlinson's performance today is how very subtly it shifts registers from the opening moments, when it's so broad as to be near to clowning, to the closing moments, when it's become something finer of grain, in keeping with the elegiac temper of the conclusion. That shift is true to the text (which opens calling for a pratfall on a banana peel and ends emphasizing Krapp's deeply lonely solitude) and it's also a remarkable feat of technique. It's just beautiful work.
(But in neither production has Tomlinson slipped on the banana peel as the play stipulates; instead he carefully puts the peels in a garbage can; I regretted that choice at first, and thought it a needless concession to an actor's safety, but on reflection I think it works: the careful sequestration of the peel in the garbage calls the gag to mind and then refuses to enact it, which puts the play in a parodic relation to slapstick – in some ways a more interesting move than what the script calls for, and in fact very Beckett-like.)
When I teach Eugene O'Neill's Expressionist comedy The Hairy Ape, I invite students to remark on the play's excremental imagery, from the conventional description of the bowels of the steam liner in which Yank works to Mildred's fascinating characterization of herself as a "waste product in the Bessemer process." A play whose central character is named Krapp is openly inviting similar remark, and as I watched today's performance I took note of how the word-loving Krapp relishes the word "spool" only to note its similarities with the word "stool." (If I didn't mishear, then this production has tweaked the script to introduce the spool-stool wordplay earlier.) Since the spool is what Krapp's tapes are wound on, and since the tapes are the matter on which Krapp's words are recorded, one is led (I am led) to a reading that sees Krapp's words figuratively as Krapp's crap. The reading seems appropriate for a playwright so preoccupied with waste (in Endgame, Nell and Nagg are entombed in ashbins; in Play, three characters are inurned). And it emphasizes how pathetic Krapp is, with his archive of recordings to which he obsessively returns, chewing the tapes over again and again, trying to digest them again and again, always responding to them with disgust and fascination.
When I wasn't obsessing over that metaphor (there's a little bit of Krapp in me, too, and indeed I may be full of Krapp), I found myself engrossed with the structure of the play, which is a frame narrative, or, to be pompous and grasp for the German term, a Rahmenerzahlung. The frame narrative has its own elaborate history stretching back to Ovid's Metamorphoses and no doubt beyond, and I've been thinking about it a lot in the past year in relation to what one literary critic calls the romantic arabesque - novels written under the spell of German Romanticism that emphasize polyphony, uncertainty, and contingency, all in the name of frustrating attempts to articulate a single, monologic interpretation. It seems to me that Krapp's Last Tape is a frame narrative in this tradition. The uncertainty that the romantic arabesque incorporates into the form is evident at what I take to be the crisis of the play. The bygone Krapp is describing an erotically charged moment with a woman (the two are alone on a punt that's drifting downstream): "I asked her to look at me and after a few moments - [pause] - after a few moments she did, but the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. [Pause. Low] Let me in. [Pause.] We drifted among the flags and stuck." The uncertainty lies in who, Krapp or the woman, is speaking the line "Let me in." Just whose plea is this? The uncertainty is beyond resolving - it's impossible to know one way or another - and yet the question is crucial, since, if this really is the crisis of Krapp's life, the answer would tell us if his isolation springs from his refusal to admit the woman into his life or from the woman's refusal to let him into hers. It would, in other words, define the shape of the latter-day Krapp's loneliness, and thereby define Krapp himself. The uncertainty leaves him a mystery to us.
Jewel, 7 January 2016, LSPU Hall
I watched Joan MacLeod's play Jewel at the LSPU Hall last night. The crowd was very different from the one I'm used to seeing at the Hall - much greyer of hair and bourer of geois. Our current premier was there and spoke beforehand (not a gifted orator) and Danny Williams was there, too, shmancy in a sealskin coat. The director of the play acknowledged him from the stage and the applause was formal and after-the-revels hangovery. The self-importance of the preliminaries took me out of the frame of mind for watching a play, or rather put me in the mind for watching the second-rate theatre of politics.
The pols were there because all the proceeds of the production are going to charity. It's a noble cause and everyone's heart is in the right place, and also I had a comp ticket, so I feel like I'm making a guilty confession and showing atrocious manners when I say that I found the play dull. The problem lies with MacLeod's script, not with the actor in the central (and only) role, who did what she could - and she's a sensitive, appealing actor who could tackle something more substantial. A take on the Ocean Ranger disaster, the play is most original for setting the play in northern Alberta and making the protagonist the widow of a rancher who'd worked as a welder on the rig. A rancher on the rig; an ocean rancher: I thought of the piscatory eclogue, that variation on pastoral that tries to renovate the mode by turning shepherds into fishermen. To the extent that there's meat in the play, it's in the disjunction between the life on the ranch and the death on the sea. But once that originality is dispensed with, the script doesn't leave you with much: grief is inherently dramatic and loss is a good basis for a one-person show, but MacLeod didn't have much to say about either. Her protagonist misses her husband and at times is angry with him. She confesses that she's slept with someone since, but that person's body mostly reminded her of the body she knew best. She by turns denies, bargains, experiences anger, succumbs to despair, and gestures imperfectly towards acceptance and in brief follows the map laid out by Kubler-Ross. I started checking off the stages as though I were out shopping, and I suppose there's virtue in predictability, but I was a little bored.
The one moment where the play started to interest me (but not in a good way) was when the widow described a visit by Mormon missionaries to her door in northern Alberta. She was amused by the notion that northern Alberta would be a destination for missionaries, and she made some crudely racist references to what she took to be more conventional subjects of missionary attention. You can imagine the kind. The moment took me by surprise. The widow is clearly meant to be the sympathetic centre of the play, and that disclosure of her coarse racism made her suddenly, deeply unsympathetic. In a play written now, that sudden disclosure would be a key to the whole work, and one might still venture an against-the-grain interpretation of the play as a portrait of the racial anxieties informing white working-class widows' appeals for attention to be paid to the low men they've lost. But as it is, I think it testifies (damningly) to the assumptions about race abiding if not predominating in Canadian theatre in the 1980s, when MacLeod wrote it and it was first staged (at the Edmonton Fringe and then at the Tarragon). And maybe still lingering now, since last night's production neither edited out the line nor foregrounded it as a problem for us to sort through in our interpretation of the protagonist. I was fascinated and appalled - and then the ritual of loss resumed.
Elegy for a Lady, 13 December 2015, Henry Street
I went to see a production of Arthur Miller's Elegy for a Lady tonight. It's running until the 16th, and well worth seeing. It's a very good production: the two actors are both immensely charismatic and the script is smart. Not the least of the production's charms is that it's being staged in the parlour of a home on Henry Street. I'm a sucker for such intimate stagings, which seem to be increasingly frequent in St. John's. I like being so close to the actors, and I like hearing the gurgling stomachs of my fellow audience members (I really do, and I'm aware of how weird that is). That kind of intimacy is my beau ideal of theatre.
[As usual, when I write about local productions, I'm completely indifferent to your desperate need for suspense, and I may cavalierly reveal details of the plot. Or not. Probably I will. Yes, definitely. So be forewarned.]
Elegy for a Lady is a one-act that seems to be about an older man (George Robertson) who enters a store looking for a gift for his dying mistress and who proceeds to fall into conversation with the store owner (Monica Walsh). He wants to give the perfect gift to a woman with little time left, and he's at a loss: all the gifts he considers seem inappropriate, some of them tastelessly so, some of them cruelly so. His uncertainty and need for the owner's advice offer the means for the characters to start revealing themselves to one another, and drama ensues.
I say that it seems to be about all this because I'm not convinced that we're to take the scenario at face value. The play explicitly complicates it as the drama unfolds (the mistress may not be dying). But I think still more may be going on. The play calls insistent attention to the similarities between the mistress and the store owner ("she has your colouring"; "why, she's roughly your age"; "my goodness, that's just the sort of thing she'd say") and the store owner has uncanny intuition about what fuels her double: her anxieties; her hopes; her personal understanding of the relationship. Taken at face value it's so pat that it's a little exasperating. But a basic rule of superhero comics seems relevant: if you don't see the body, you can't be sure the villain's dead. In this case, without the character appearing onstage, one has to interpret her as verbal artefact. Even if we imagine that within the fiction of the play a real mistress exists somewhere, we have to interpret what the characters are saying about her as contingent: their characterizations and conclusions may have little to do with the woman herself. And in this case, there's a real possibility that she doesn't exist at all - that she's Miller's equivalent of the son of George and Martha. A possibility, not a certainty, but a possibility that we're free to take seriously. (The same is also true of the man's wife.) As I was watching the play unfold, I considered how it would change matters if the mistress were such an invention. At first I thought it might be onesided - that the older man was making her up as a strange way of meeting women. Then I thought of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick.
Those latter two are among the stranger characters in Victorian history: they married, but kept the marriage a secret, Cullwick playing the role of Munby's servant. Within their relationship the two of them explored the erotics of Victorian class (or, if you like, found erotic possibilities in the unerotic structures of Victorian class). It occurred to me, as I watched Elegy, that the drama between Munby and Cullwick might illuminate the play, which we might see as a consensual fiction - a game between the two characters that the audience watched without understanding it as such. In that interpretation, the similarities between the mistress and the storeowner are less an indictment of Miller's script and more a sign of something metatheatrical at work, a drama about a drama. One of the appeals of that reading is that it makes the storeowner less of a type - the magic working-class figure offering sage insights to a member of the middle classes - and more of a character with a genuine stake in the action. Another is that it makes class a key term in the play - as one would expect in a work by Miller. A third, especially in this production, is that it makes the already intimate audience privy to a still more intimate performance where the actors and the audience are one and the same.
All of which is a characteristically longwinded way of saying that the play is engaging and worth your time. Treat yourself to some home theatre and support some local artists. You have until Wednesday: go!
Hunger, 23 November 2015, LSPU Hall
I saw Meghan Greeley's Hunger at the LSPU Hall on Saturday. I admired its ambition. I knew I was in good hands when I read Greeley's production note in the program, which related the circumstances in which she first outlined the play. A flood in Toronto led the cockroaches in her apartment to emerge from the nooks, seeking dry ground but rendering themselves vulnerable, and even as she was plotting a play about refugees, she was crushing the fugitive cockroaches. She registered the black comedy of the situation only later.
[I'm going to write about specific aspects of the play, because I'm not reviewing the play but reflecting on it, so be forewarned: I will spoil the meal.]
If you were to draft a play taking as its theme the effect of hunger on compassion you'd probably light on something similar to what Greeley wrote. You'd begin with a compassionate community and then you'd put that community under pressure. Each successive scene would show the winnowing away of charity until what remained was something else, not civilization but what lies one meal below (or two, or three). You'd probably have the play climax in cannibalism - an appropriate figure for the primitivism to which the community had been reduced. Intervening scenes would explore different kinds of hunger: for status, for sex, for art. Ideally the cracks would be visible already in the opening scene. The whole play would feel inevitable. It might attempt some kind of consolatory recuperation at the end, but it would have to do so carefully, lest the recuperation feel false.
That, briefly, is the shape of Greeley's play. But Greeley adds flesh to that skeleton through imagery that's consistently imaginative and smart. For instance, sugar is a major figure in the play: in an early scene, the main characters treat themselves with four sugar cubes, one for each of them. (One character decides to save her cube for later, and like Chekhov's gun it returns at a critical moment.) It's a fascinating choice, since sugar is sweet but provides empty calories, as my dad said, speaking of the ready availability of sugar in the concentration camps where he was interned. That is, sugar will treat the mouth but do nothing to slake hunger, and so in Hunger the treat is a wasteful expense that suggests how ill-equipped the community is for what's about to befall it. And when it comes back later, and a character exchanges sex for that fourth sugar cube, it's a dubious bargain (neither sugar nor, in this context, sex conduces to survival, so you have to decide if the pleasures exchanged are equivalent). In the final, ambiguous image of the play, snow falls gently down onto the characters, who stick their tongues out to catch the crystals, and I thought that the snow crystals and the sugar crystals were probably connected: the peaceful image may be as sweet but as empty of calories as the sugar was.
With respect to that final image: it's ambiguous because we can no longer be sure that the protagonists are alive, or if so if they're of sound mind, and the falling snow is accordingly a complex symbol – multivalent, to be academic about it. This complexity points to what I think is the most interesting aspect of the play – what I'll call its changing of the symbolic contract at the play's climax. The play isn't ever realist, exactly, but there's an intensification of its symbolism towards the end. We're offered a rationale for that intensification: the characters have eaten bad meat, and start to lose their faculties and, we infer, to hallucinate. But putting aside that rationale (necessary to suture the surreal scenes to the preceding more-or-less realist ones), what the play offers as the characters enter into deeper and deeper privation is an enrichment and proliferation of symbolism. Want produces plenty - and that's an interesting move on Greeley's part. In part it's the recuperation that I suggested is necessary following the cannibal episode, the bounce back after hitting bottom. But it's also a kind of thesis, encoded in the play's symbolic economy, declaring that scarcity is itself productive.
I'm not sure that that's a compelling paradox or a facile contradiction, but at this stage of thinking about the play, I admire it as a creative resolution to Hunger's conflicts, articulated at the level not of plot or character but of the image.