Review: recovery by Greg MacArthur

The NAC Presents
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

The Company:
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 . . .

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About riverwriter

Poet, playwright, duplicate bridge player, website designer, cottager, husband, father, grandfather, former athlete, carpenter, computer helper for my friends, theatre designer, backstage polymath, retired teacher of highschool English, drama, art, a baritone singer in a barbershop quartet, who knows what else? wordcurrents is on Facebook: Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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4 Responses to Review: recovery by Greg MacArthur

  1. Jeremy says:

    If the audience you attended the play with asked questions such as What was that about?” “What the heck?” “Did you understand that?” -maybe you give them more credit than they deserve. If they faiiled to understand what was going on in the play that was the fault of their own mental limitations and no fault of the writer or the way the play was presented.

    The narrative style was a great approach, had you not been so desperate for character interaction on stage you may have noticed there was a lot going on. Every piece of dialogue and every narrative had a purpose.

    This review wreaks of a person who failed to grasp the concept of the play and was merely bored because he could not understand what was happening in front of him.

  2. riverwriter says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jeremy.

    You seem to be missing the point I make late in the review, that the play works, but only after it leaves the declamative style. I worked with Lise Ann Johnson for most of a year in the NAC’s Writer’s Unit, and one message she drummed at us was “show; don’t tell.” That is my reason for being surprised she let this script go down the expository path.

    It may be true that I and most of the audience failed to get what was going on in this play, and you may be right in saying that this failure was “the fault of their own mental limitations and no fault of the writer or the way the play was presented;” but the whole point of art is to affect an audience, and I think our reactions suggest that at least by the end of act 1, that was not happening.

    If, as you say, I “was merely bored because [I] could not understand what was happening in front of [me],” you should understand that as I am a writer and an experienced and sympathetic playgoer and reviewer, the burden of creating understanding shifts somewhat to the playwright. You will notice, though, that my review did state that the play did work on several levels; and I certainly was disposed to like it, since John and Kate (two people I have worked with) are certainly actors whose work I admire, and am disposed to sympathize with. For several reasons, then, I think it is valid to say the script needs work. I stand by my review.

    Where else but on the Internet can a dialogue like this take place?

    Thanks again for commenting.

  3. Angela says:

    Well, I agree with the reviewer for this play. I just went to see the French version of this play last night and I had exactly the same feeling. I can appreciate what the playwright was trying to convince us except the way he wrote the play it was not very convincing. Instead of having the actors narrating everything, the playwright should’ve included more scenes to instead show what inhabitants and the staff who really both are the victims of institutionalization are going through to let the audience see for themselves the devastating effects of the oppression and be convinced by it. In Act II, I find myself almost marvelling at the fact that everybody gets to move to a newer, bigger and brighter facility with large windows. I kept asking myself “what’s wrong with the new facility again”?

    Play by narration is an extremely challenging way for actors to express what a play tries to convey because narration itself limits tremendously actors’ abilities and working space to express their characters and in turn the play’s themes and ideas. So unless you have exceptionally outstandingly expressive script for narrators to work with (which this play doesn’t), watching a narrative play is like listening to a corny ghost story by the bonhire that you know is fake. And that is exactly what this play makes me feel.

  4. riverwriter says:

    Here we are, four years later, still discussing this play and my review of it. Where else but the Internet?

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