Review: Talking With . . . by Jane Martin

CanPlay Productions , in association with Ottawa Little Theatre, presents:

Produced by Barbara Crook
Directed by Janet Irwin
June 21 – 30 Ottawa Little Theatre 613-233-8948
Performance viewed: June 23, 2006 8 pm

Costume Design by Sarah Feely
Lighting Design by David Magladry

Cast (in order of appearance:
Nickie Brodie, Fifteen Minutes
Maureen Smith, Clear Glass Marbles
Teri Rata Loretto, Scraps
Tori Hammond, Rodeo
Scarlet Thomas, Audition
Sarah McVie, Twirler
Merle Matheson, Lamps
Kristina Watt, Handler
Kate Egan-Veinotte, Dragons
Kathi Langston, French Fries
Michele Fansett, Marks

Production Manager …. Heather Marie Scheerscmidt
Stage Manager …. Stéfanie Séguin
Assistant Stage Manager …. Jim Hogan
Assistant Director …. Emily Pearlman
Musician …. Samuel Brisson
Publicity and Group Sales …. Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston

Consider this production to be the theatre version of a concert made up entirely of arias by the same composer, each by a different soloist. In this way, while there is a certain similarity in the style of composition, there is significant variety in the style of performance.

This production of Talking With . . . is a venture in theatre which, if successful, could usher ina new era in professional theatre in Ottawa. Producer Barbara Crook, who addressed the audience before the show last evening is backing this Equity production in a great show of faith that Ottawa audiences, augmented by the substantial Ottawa Little Theatre audience base, will support an alternative professional theatre. The jury is still out on that, as competition from the Fringe Festival may cut into support for this venture.

The production has legs and a pedigree. Director Jan Irwin, whose production of this vehicle at The NAC Atelier in 1985 inspired Crook to mount this venture, is an intelligent, brave and imaginative venturer, whose substantial artistic vision should be more available to mainstream audiences than it is.

The production consists of eleven vignettes, six in the first act and five in the second. While there are some thematic elements that echo from one scene to the next, the vignettes are essentially unrelated; hence my allusion earlier to a concert. But just as a music lover will relish a concert by virtuosi, so a true theatre goer can become immersed in the rich panoply of virtuosity evident here.

One of the luxuries of Internet reviewing is that I do not have an editor sitting over my shoulder restricting length: I can dwell on every detail I wish to, and here I wish to review each vignette, one at a time. In order, then:

Nickie Brodie, Fifteen Minutes
This is the settling-in episode, when it hits you that this may not be a play, strictly speaking, and you are in for a series of one-scene monologues, which will not satisfy the lust you have for plot and character development, conflict and story. I found myself a bit put off by the character’s placement upstage, wondering why there was so much distance between her and the audience. At the same time, I was attracted to the intensity and colouration of Brodie’s performance, the lush ripeness of her voice, and the animation of her character. Opening slot is a tough one: you have to warm up the audience and draw them in; by the time Brodie had finally made her way downstage, I was hooked. The intensity of the scene was augmented by the annoying periodic strident announcements, which surely are not a part of an actor’s life. Shudder.

Now, I must add this: Brodie does not have to break the ice all on her own; the task of breaking the ice has really been initiated by cellist Samuel Bisson, whose live solo rendition throughout the production of excerpts from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor really lent a substantial patina of beauty and immediacy to the whole millieu, thoroughly bridging the chasm between play and concert for me. Again this was a dimension of the production that enriched the evening and made me embrace the experience even more.

Maureen Smith, Clear Glass Marbles
Costume was the first thing that struck me about Smith’s entrance. Her character looked so completely constrained by her life, as imposed by the restrictive 1950s lines of the plain costume. I almost expected to see a girdle line showing through somewhere. The scene Smith has to play (and I say “has” to play to express my first reaction to it) is decidedly unattractive, but here, the playwright invents an intriguing metaphor (the clear glass marbles) which just elevate the whole sordid situation to something noble, elegant and inspiring. Of course, smith carries this whole thing off impeccably, not overplaying it, just letting it hit you in the subtle bone.

Teri Rata Loretto, Scraps
Bizarre is a word that surfaced in my mind more than once during the performance. Here was a concept that embodied the word. Loretto’s backlit entrance with a vacuum cleaner to scoop up the marbles left onstage by Smith’s scene must provide quite a challenge, as her vision is severely limited by the mask, and the lighting is minimal. I could hear members of the audience offering prompts to make certain she could find all of them, since they were a hazard. And of course, by then, she has us — talk about a clever device! Here we have another life story, for that is what these are, in which a woman reinvents herself as a character from Oz. Loretto does not play to the pathos inherent in the concept; she does not have to. Here is a piece in which the script speaks for itself, and in the hands of a talented actor and director, it gels beautifully.

Tori Hammond, Rodeo
A hand prop, a bridle and reins draped around her neck provide Hammond with a barometer for her emotions in this look at her feelings about what has happened to her life as the rodeo has changed from a friendly human joy to a controlled substance. It struck me that the same thing has happened to society’s children, who used to be able to play; now they have to take part in the heartless organization of little leagues, which are not play at all. Hammond’s simple country gal who grew up with horses is raging inside at one of the maxims of life: when you get there, it’s too late because it ain’t there no more, and you can’t go back because it ain’t there neither. Her angst is palpable and touching.

Scarlet Thomas, Audition
Thomas got to play opposite a cute scene stealer if there ever was one: a kitty on a leash, but she was given enough provocative ammunition to overcome the challenge. As in several other scenes, there is a wonderful contrast between the restraint of the character and what she is saying or threatening. Picture your mother sweetly asking you if you would rather have apple pie or napalm for dessert. In this sketch, you see the frustration actors have (rightly so, in my opinion) with the audition process. I think of all the performers who spend so much of themselves preparing only to have it all come down to the inhuman fulcrum of the audition, a process which is generally so unlike what you will be asked to do in the job that it is inherently absurd; it is as if you were to be asked to juggle flaming plutonium axeheads to prove you can be a baby sitter. I must say, I was not surpised, but very disappointed when the lights dimmed on that scene.

Sarah McVie, Twirler
Again costume and makeup provide the clear basis for the character. Add to that the south-west-central USA accent, right-wing religious fanaticism, and you have a character as terrifying as any terrorist and as friendly and perky as a button. This again is an example of the bizarre flaring up — say Sigourney Weaver’s alien bursting out of the heart of an apple pie, where “pie” is pronounced “pah”. It brings a suspicious lump to your throat, don’t it? McVie, again, balances the sweetness and the terror in a scene that involves just enough audience participation to set up some real front row anticipation in act two, when we get to Handler. I wonder if this scene could have been sub-titled Buffy the Vampire (no, the omission of “Killer” is not a typo.)

Merle Matheson, Lamps
Matheson plays the scene with the most set and props, all of which are lamps flown in beautifully. Again we deal with another tone, a gentler softer character with a slightly off-centre twist, who takes us through her obsession with lamps and their light. Here is a gentler, sweeter bizarre take with its own persuasive sanity. This piece brings us back from intermission into the worlds of these women with an ease that is tempting. Matheson plays it gracefully, delicately, convincingly, sweetly. As Matheson turns off the lamps one by one we see an echo of the serial release of the marbles in the earlier scene.

Kristina Watt, Handler
World-weary in her cotton shift, Watt conveys us deeper into the world of the evangelistic Bible thumpin’ exotic than even Twirler could, for Watt’s character has something that even McVie’s did not: snakes. It is here that the planting in McVie’s piece bears fruit: will she really bring out a snake? If she does, will it get loose and slither amok underfoot in the dark audience? So there is that element underlying the scene. And there is the character’s easy-going banter about the Job-like relationship between the success in the love of the Lord and its relationship to snake handling. Complicating that is the character’s crisis of faith. I really bought this scene.

Kate Egan-Veinotte, Dragons
Inasmuch as I really liked the other scenes, this one was my favourite. The wretched gyrations of the mother caught in the mental and physical terrors of childbirth are portrayed with excruciating verisimilitude by Egan-Veinotte. The clever script’s dragon metaphor exquisitely captures that fantastical odessey that childbirth is. I loved the line she delivers about her obstetrician: “I want him on a plate with french fries.” Being a male, I had no real basis for empathizing with childbirth aside from several sessions of fist-holding (I come from the medieval period of birthin’ when husbands were not allowed anywhere near the delivery room, to wit Old Wife’s Tale, a monologue I wrote on the subject, published in PGC’s [then Playwrights’ Union of Canada] first collection of monologues) — that is, until I had several episodes of kidney stones. Now I know the joys of trying to expell something more than moderately painfully, when you know it has to come out, but seemingly can’t.

Kathi Langston, French Fries
Yet another example of paradox: somebody gentle and completely ordinary except . . . . Langston captures this gentle elderly woman’s quest for immortality in the simple device of following her logic to the conclusion that since you can’t die in MacDonald’s, it’s a good place to live. In a turn reminiscent of characters played by Betty White in TV’s Golden Girls and more recently, Boston Legal, we have the sweet innocent who ploughs blythely into thinly veiled statements about the immortality of plastic, which when viewed in environmental terms, rings very true.

Michele Fansett, Marks
To top off an evening of bizarre concepts, Fansett’s tats, while not perhaps convincingly complex as most artistic tattoos are, certainly stole the up-the-aisle comments, as patrons were heard to muse, “How would she get those on every night? Transfers?” Somehow, they did not really look permanent, perhaps because they were not pervasive enough. Again, the story hook is that each represents a connection that the character has. Somehow, this weakest of the stories seemed a strange place to end. I think this story would have been stronger if the tats had been more pervasive, perhaps with more skin showing, but I suppose there is a limit to how far you can take the concept.

Overall, I think this production shows promise for Barbara Crook’s CanPlay. A few little house lighting glitches just before the performance started comprised the only glaring technical flaw I could see, although that was a little disquieting, given the fact that OLT is a community theatre house.

One other complaint I have about the house itself is that in the first few rows, the patron is at eye level or below to the stage. This is a significant problem. Members of my party, in the second row centre on the centre aisle, were unable to see the kitty without rising off their seats. If this is to be the venue for more professional theatre, I think there should be come thought given to either

1. lowering the stage by at least eighteen inches or to raising the house floor level significantly (a very expensive proposition) or

2. removing the first ten rows centre and thrusting the stage significantly with the concomitant re-hanging of the electrics, or

3. adding onstage bleachers, and placing the stage in the low spot currently occupied by the centre house first ten or or twelve rows of seats.

Something has to be done.

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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: https://www.facebook.com/wordcurrents/ Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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