Monthly Archives: November 2013

“There was no white linen, for my husband.” – People Like Us

“There was no white linen, for my husband.”

That was one of the repeated lines in People Like Us, Sandi Johnson’s new play.  Sarah Louise Turner plays Kate Rourke, wife of a 1991 Gulf War veteran, in an emotionally-evocative solo performance that had me in laughter and in tears.

I saw the first preview of the world premiere last night at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.  And if my remaining time in Vancouver wasn’t already booked up with professional commitments, I’d be tempted to see it again.

“He held his cutlery like a prince.”  In another repeated line, she shows us a glimpse of Gerry, the gallant man she married, kind, loyal, honoured to be a soldier – a man who once lifted her off her feet on the way home from a Christmas party in Petawawa to carry her across an intersection in her velvet dress in a snow storm.

Her narrative slips among times, the present (2001), the time before Gerry’s posting to Iraq, while he’s away, and how she copes after he returns home physically and mentally damaged.  But the story’s easy to follow, due to clear writing and Ms Turner’s shifts in voice and body language.  She becomes Gerry’s advocate with the military and the doctors, and gradually she starts helping other veterans conquer their own bureaucratic opponents.  “Helping military veterans apply for medical marijuana – that should be a marketable skill?”  She becomes known as the “Yarmouth (NS) Bulldog” for her tenacity.

She also maintains her love of belly dance, and a few times during the play she puts on scarves, coin belt, and zils to show how the dancing helps her maintain her power and sensuality during difficult times.  The connection between “the Middle East” of the belly-dance culture, and her second-hand experience of Iraq through television and phone calls and Gerry’s flashbacks, is not spelled out at all.  The story unfolds in a subtle way not often seen in short theatre pieces.  A few times I thought I guessed at a disaster to come, and I was always wrong.   The performer carries out various stage business during the narrative (folding laundry, packing a suitcase, making tea and drinking it), but this never distracted me from what she was saying.  Instead it just emphasized her get-on-with-things attitude as a determined mother and military wife.

Firehall Arts Centre is an effective medium-size black box performance space.  The set (designed by Amanda Larder) was fascinating – at first I saw the re-creation of a clean cozy family living room, with flowered upholstery, baskets of laundry, cups of tea, and wide worn floorboards, but gradually I took in the backdrop and ceiling from a different world.  You see, above the white wainscoting, the room had been covered by a military-style canvas tent, only instead of conventional green camouflage or desert camouflage, the dirty stained fabrics included some Laura Ashley style flowered brocades or wallpapers.  And partway through the show, I realised that along the walls of the room were little piles of sand, as if the tent/walls were insufficient to keep out the encroaching desert, just as Kate’s attempts to make a safe familiar home for her husband and children were not sufficient to keep the effects of war away from them.

This production continues at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver until November 16th.  I don’t know if there are any plans for it to travel.  There should be.

2 Pianos, 4 Hands, lots of characters

A trombonist friend told us that anyone who’d ever taken music lessons should try to see 2 Pianos 4 Hands in its run at the Citadel.  I saw it in the first preview Saturday night, and I agree.  Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt wrote the play and perform in it.  This is their last tour with the show.

The stage is empty except for two shiny Yamaha grand pianos, two coatracks, and two large picture frames in which are projected occasional stylized images indicating changes of scene.

The show starts with the two pianists entering in tailcoats, saluting the audience, then sitting down to play a duet.  Then follows a hilarious set of disagreements and negotiations about who gets which piano, who gets which piano bench, and when they start, all conducted completely in silence.

The tailcoats then come off as the performance moves forward in a series of vignettes about the characters growing up playing the piano.  Each actor played the other’s parents and piano teachers, and in a particularly funny scene they addressed the audience as the session chair and adjudicator for a Kiwanis Music Festival session.  The two boys also interacted as duet partners and as competitors in some scenes.  I particularly enjoyed recognising many of the specifics they referred to – Royal Conservatory exams, Kiwanis festival – and even recognised at least two of the lesson books they were using as props.  Illustrations of general music-lesson memories about parents prodding the child to practice and about teachers’ contradictory advice were also amusing.

I admired the way they showed similarities in the two characters’ alternating scenes, but still made them distinctive people.  The characters and the performers had the same names, so one might imagine strong threads of autobiography.  When Richard Greenblatt’s character was being taught by a nun, who used “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” as a mnemonic for three notes, he corrected her under his breath with a three-word Hebrew phrase.  When the two boys were teenagers, each of them had a teacher who motivated him by telling him that girls would be attracted to a certain style of playing arpeggios (two opposite styles).

The vignettes continue as the two young men explore various ways of using their musicianship, and ends with them putting the tailcoats back on and finishing the duet they started the show with.

At intermission of the performance I saw, theatregoers all around us were talking about their own memories of musical childhoods, and we were too.  Friends who hadn’t taken music lessons as children said that they’d enjoyed the performance but knew they’d missed some of the inside jokes.  2 Pianos 4 Hands plays at the Citadel until November 17th.