In the Ontario city where I used to live, a few of the downtown commercial blocks had internal courtyards that you could access through twisty brick passages, so that you’d end up in a magical place in the middle where you couldn’t see or hear any cars. In the best of these, there was a restaurant patio or two, with lattice sunshades and white fairy lights wound around the sunshades and trees, so that you could have a drink or a dinner in a place that felt like a couple of twists away from reality.
Last night I walked into Studio A at the Red Deer College Arts Centre to find it transformed into such a magical courtyard, for the Theatre Performance and Creation program’s production of Charles Mee’s Summertime, as directed by Lynda Adams, an instructor in the program. The risers for the audience were arranged on three sides, with white cloth draperies over each chair pinned with an artificial flower, like at a wedding reception. Clear twinkling light illuminated white garden furniture and several trees; closer inspection showed the tree branches full of white teacups. Three identically-dressed actors were already present on the stage, three young women going through stylised synchronised motions of reading, writing, sitting and standing while seeming completely unaware of each other.
Looking at the program revealed that the three, Jessie Muir, Constance Isaac and Taylor Pfeifer, were all cast as Tessa, and several other roles were also filled by two or three actors. This was a choice made by director Adams in order to include all 21 members of the ensemble in the production, and it turned out to work surprisingly well with Mee’s source text, particularly the first bit which is cryptic, full of awkward pauses and what I think of as gnomic. The duplicate or triplicate actors sometimes recited the line together, and sometimes alternated. Their actions were sometimes identical and symmetrical, with each of the three Tessas looking at one James (JP Lord, Dustin Funk, Lucas Hackl) and one François (Tyler Johnston, Chase Condon, and Richard Leurer), and sometimes the three would be responding differently or all rushing to one corner of the stage. It took surprisingly little time to get accustomed to this narrative convention.
As the story unfolds, the self-possessed young woman Tessa is rattled by two unexpected suitors, then overwhelmed by a crowd of family and friends arriving. As the characters interact we can see why Tessa soon exclaims
“This is what I grew up with!
What chance did I have with a family like this?
And you want to fall in love with me?
How can anyone expect me to form any kind of relationship
with another human being?”
François, who at first seemed the more appropriate suitor for Tessa than the painfully awkward stranger James, seems to have previously been involved with not just the family friend Mimi (Victoria Day), but also with Tessa’s mother Maria (Julia VanDam, Megan Einarson and Brittany Martyshuk), glamorous, remote, and somehow European, with a flowered scarf in her hair or thrown around her neck. Two staid slouching middle-aged men outfitted from an LL Bean catalogue for cottage weekends, with baggy khakis and brightly coloured sweaters, turn out to be Tessa’s father Frank (Jake Tkaczyk), and Edmund (Bret Jacobs), Frank’s friend, companion, and lover. Other friends, connections, and a pizza delivery man (Sasha Sandmeier, Victoria Day, Wayne De Atley) react to each other showing that everything is more complicated than originally assumed, and that nobody is happy with the situations. Barbara, who seems to be the housekeeper (Jennifer Suter and Collette Radau), interrupts with an over-the-top and very funny tirade about men. Frank starts out as a sort of genial absentminded host and observer, but we soon find out that even the calm Edmund is full of resentments, in his case against Frank. The first act ends with all this discontent stirred up into a wonderfully-chaotic choreographed piece by the whole cast stomping and whirling about the crowded space to percussion accompaniment, bouncing off each other and exclaiming their frustrations with love, while Frank periodically shouts “Excuse me!” You can tell this ensemble has some rigorous training in physical theatre and has been working together for many months.
In the second act, things are quieter and the dialogue a bit more conventional, but it seems unlikely that any of these people would be happy together. Frank makes a speech which starts with the repeated motif of the play that love is complicated these days, and leads to a long thoughtful observation about life changing continuously and the past disappearing as it is lived. Tessa seems to be considering both James and François as suitors. Maria reconciles with Frank. An odd challenge leads to all the male characters doffing their trousers to lie down in plaid boxer shorts and colour-co-ordinated socks. A few neighbours, Gunther, Bertha, and Hilda (Wayne De Atley, Jessica Bordley, and Rebecca Lozinski), drop in and add to the complications, until a tilt towards resolution is hinted at by Hilda, who makes a delightful and impassioned speech in favour of pursuing love. Eventually there are happy romantic resolutions for some of the couples, but things don’t work out as tidily as in Anything Goes, particularly for Frank, who slumps alone at the side of the stage as some of the happy couples dance tenderly and the lights dim.
I don’t know any words for the genre of this play. Some of the marketing materials suggested a light drawing room comedy, but trying to read the script before I’d seen it was as much a struggle as trying to read Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Maybe it was like Noel Coward done in the absurdist tradition?
The set design, colour choices for the costumes (both by Sheena Haug), and lighting (Heather Cornick) contributed effectively to the not-quite-real mood. As someone who loves both bright colours and socks, I was immediately enchanted to see many of the characters wearing bright co-ordinated socks, Tessa in rainbow-stripes, James matching their turquoise shirts, and François in a bright purple that complemented their outfit. Original music was written and performed by Jordan Galloway.
I enjoyed this performance very much, but I am still thinking about it. Like all of Charles Mee’s work, the script is available on line. It’s easier to read after seeing the play than it was beforehand. I’m considering seeing it again before its run ends Sunday night, and if this sounds intriguing you should too. Tickets are available through Black Knight Ticket Centre out of Red Deer, and at the door. Red Deer College and its Arts Centre are easy to find right off Highway 2 in Red Deer.