An NAC English Theatre World Premiere
April 18 – 29, 2006
Directed by David Oiye
Set and Costume Designer Kim Neilsen
Lighting Designer David fraser
Composer and Sound Designer Robert Perreault
Kate Hurman . . . Clare
John Koensgen . . .Ash
Jeff Lawson . . . Leroy
Ian Leung . . . Ben
Alix Sideris . . . Mya
Paul Wernick . . . Alexander
This play is very perplexing. Its staging and design are both striking and limiting; it deals with significant issues but is written almost entirely in a narrative-expository form which I am surprised dramaturg Lise Ann Johnson let the playwright get away with, and yet, I can almost understand why she did.
I believe the effect of the rigid staging and the narrative form of the script was evident at intermission, when the lobby crowd was strangely silent, and at the end of the play, when there was no applause in spite of lighting suggesting the play was over, until the actors started out for the curtain call; even afterwards, as the audience left, one could hear puzzled discussion among the audience “What was that about?” “What the heck?” “Did you understand that?” — this from an experienced audience that attends all these plays. I must admit that at the first intermission, as the lights came up, I had sighed and was asked if I wanted to leave. I declined to do so, partly because two of my favourite actors (John Koensgen and Kate Hurman) were in it, but moreso because I wanted to see if somehow the script could be salvaged. I think, in my estimation, it was, to some extent.
The play seems to be about the inhabitants and staff of a facility strangely located near the south pole, where people are brought for some form of rehabilitation, although that element seems to become less important as the routine of the place with its ominous sounds from off gradually becomes its own imperative. We see themes of paranoia, alienation , isolation, fragmentation, gang culture, suspicion, brainwashing, dehumanization, environmental destruction, institutional mores . . . the list could go on. Like all science fiction, the play is didactic, and the design and lighting, the sound schema and little touches in the costumery all promote the sense of a horrifically organized dehumanized Bauhaus setting in which everything lines up, every action is fit into a pattern. It is all fascinatingly compelling once you get into it (Act 2).
Although the first act seemed interminably like listening to someone read the play to us, as most of the speeches are directed at the audience rather than at the other characters; in fact, that was my problem in the first act: there was very little happening. Surely that needs to be changed so that there is something passionate enough to keep audiences past the intermission. It is really too bad that plays are presented to us as finished pieces, when I believe there once was a tradition in eastern US practice of trying a play and revising it before it got to audiences in the Big Apple.
I liked the characters in this play: Koensgen ultimately wrung pathos out of his character, the expressive Ash; Jeff Lawson was fierce as the paranoid Leroy, and Kate Hurman certainly made the cheerful employee her character had become, wrenchingly sad when she wondered what was familiar about Alexander, an enigmatic boy played with superb control by student Paul Wernick. Each of the characters takes a different route to submission to the institution: Ian Leung’s Ben in a turn reminiscent of Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai becomes the instrument of the institution when he starts ignoring their deaths and finally becomes creative and composes music for the children to play for the big opening of the new and improved facility; Alix Sideris’ Mya graduates through the structure as an employee, ultimately denying Leroy until it all comes home to her.
So the play is insidious: it bores us, perplexes us into appreciating it if we stay with it. I don’t think that is a good route to take. Think of Timothy Findley’s Headhunter, which has some similar themes: this is a novel in which there is plenty of room for exposition, yet Findley carried us through the novel in situations in which characters interacted. I think this play needs to start in media res and let us discover the effects of the situation, not harrange us about them. Isn’t that the message of dramaturges ad nauseum? Theatre is showing, not telling. At least that’s what I seem to recall. I think I need to go somewhere to recover . . .