As you will know from my previous reactions to most one act plays, I like an intermission for its social aspect, for the occasion he gives me to consider and discuss the play during the interval, and for the fact that the corollary of an intermission is that the play is long enough, and the action and technicalities and demands on the performers rigorous enough to require one. As well, I have a built in bias against plays performed by a single actor; generally such plays are as much a strain for the audience as for the performer, who generally pulls out every trick in the book to show a vast repertoire of acting skills. It was again with some skepticism that I approached the one act, intermission-less, one-woman show, The Syringa Tree.
So, picture this grumpy reviewer, somewhat ambivalent after a hostile drive through stop and go rush-hour traffic on the Queensway to get to a very pleasant walk down sundrenched Wellington Street to Ti-Bill’s Bistro and a delightful meal with wife and friends, finally ensconced in the theater, ready to be disappointed.
Robin Fisher’s set, in spite of its similarity to a giant lily pad, was aesthetically pleasing and open, although I wondered about the nondescript ocher hue. The large swing, suspended from very ethereal clouds, was located just exactly where the design required. The preset lighting brought me into the set. It all felt good. This was a good start.
As the action began, I was quite engaged by Patricia Fagan’s energetic young girl; however, the talky focus of the script failed to engage me for some time. I seem to have this problem with the beginnings of many plays, particularly Shakespeare; I need something to drag me into the action. I began to feel as if my mind was going to wander away and prevent me from engaging in this play enough to review it; I was able to follow the action, but was not engrossed. That all changed with a cue: there was an abrupt loud noise and light to that snapped me into the whole action; it was as if the production said: “Pay attention!” at that point I it dawned on me how effective the sound and lighting were in this play—more about tech later. And from then, I was engaged.
Watching Fagan, I felt like a child captivated by a magic show: her shifts from one character to another seemed effortless, more like metamorphosis than acting. She did not, as sometimes happens, change place to change character; rather, she developed a repertory of body postures and voices that allowed us to understand who she was without thinking about it. It was a process of education, seamless and painless. The characters all felt right; no one seemed forced or out of place. It was beautiful as ballet, ballet I could understand. It became incredibly clear storytelling of a very simple but engaging story in which I became more emotionally invested as it developed. Fagan’s was a masterful performance that certainly won me over. She is magical.
Lise Ann Johnson’s direction was assured and absolutely effective; everything came together superbly: lighting and sound in concert with Fagan’s performance portrayed mood, atmosphere, temporal and scenic changes flawlessly and effectively.
Marc Desormeaux’s sound is designed more like the foley for a movie. It reenforces the action with music and atmospheric sounds that, like a good costume, clothe Fagan in her action. There were many instances in which the sound made extremely easy to suspended disbelief, and to feel as if I were really hearing the birds and crickets, voices, crowds peripheral to the action. This was true in the quiet moments and in the climactic moments as well.
Jock Munro’s lighting was beautifully atmospheric, focal when necessary—in a way that acted like a camera lens to bring us close; as well, it helped to depict real action as in the scene in which Fagan is swinging in the rain.
Fisher’s single costume in the show was exceptionally functional, and emphasized her movements in ways that I am certain assisted her conceptualization of the characters.
Gein’s script flowed beautifully from anecdote to anecdote, setting to setting, allowing us to follow the characters and to come to know them quite well; although I must confess to some confusion over the identity of the character who came to pray every Sunday: I thought he was a politician of some kind. In discussion after the play I realized I had missed the information that would have informed me he was a clergyman. I suppose it should have been clear to me, or perhaps it was the accent, to which my ear was not yet accustomed. I found the time to jump from youth to motherhood was rather abrupt, but Fagan was able to overcome this by just doing it and bringing us in. I found myself drawn emotionally into the action particularly toward the end. I wish I could remember the names of the characters or how they are spelled for this review. The scene in which the fourteen-year-old girl is defying the police was powerful and emotional. It was written without being “telly”; it was depiction that allowed us to react to it—that is something I can admire unreservedly.
In summation, I liked Fagan’s performance, I liked Desormeaux’s sound, I liked Munro’s lighting, I liked Fisher’s designs, Joohnson’s direction, I liked the one-woman show, I liked the one act play without an intermission (although I do like an intermission). Yes, I liked it.
The Great Canadian Theatre Company presents The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien
Director: Lise Ann Johnson
Starring: Patricia Fagan
Set and costume designer: Robin Fisher
Lighting designer: Jock Munro
Original sound and music design: Marc Desormeaux
Stage manager: Samira Rose
Assistant director: Christopher Bedford
Sound operator: Jon Carter
Lighting operator and head carpenter: Darryl Bennett
Head painter: Stephanie Dahmer
Chad Desjardins, Alex Griffore, Kevin Kenny, Martin Racette
Production seen: September 24, 8 PM Running time: 90 minutes.