Last week I saw the preview performance of the first show in the six-show U of A Studio Theatre season, Richard Greenberg’s The Violet Hour, directed by MFA Directing candidate Lucy Callingwood. I didn’t write about it immediately because I wasn’t sure what I thought of it. I’m still not sure. I remember feeling similar confusion last year when I saw pool (no water), which I came to appreciate more later.
As an audience member I like the Studio Theatre a lot, with the steeply-raked high-back seats and good acoustics making it easy for me to lose myself in the mood on stage without getting distracted by other audience members or by uncomfortable seats. Like most Studio Theatre productions, this one had interesting design choices contributing to the world of the play, and used the deep stage effectively. All the action was set in a dingy office room in a New York City building in 1919, with a colour palette leaning towards the golds and browns of worn leather, period incandescent lights, and painted wooden walls and furniture. The sky visible outside the windows and uneven horizontal blinds changed colour as the day progressed, towards the violet of dusk alluded to in the title.
The narrative starts with a scene of two men working in this office and shouting at each other. At first I assumed that the older one, Gidger (Julien Arnold, a BFA program grad some time ago, often making me laugh on local stages from the Varscona to the Shoctor, and memorable as the jailer in Die Fledermaus), was in charge. I was especially amused by the bit where Gidger is acting out his dog’s behaviour.
In a later exchange the younger one, John Pace Seavering (Oscar Derkx, BFA 2014), refers to Gidger as his employee, but I had been so convinced of my earlier assumption that I thought that was a slip of the tongue. Without seeing it again, I can’t tell what reinforced my wrong assumption. But Pace (Derkx) was a recent Princeton graduate, probably bankrolled by his father, trying to choose what manuscript to select as a first publication. He gets the choice narrowed down to two, one submitted by his college friend (Neil Kuefler, BFA 2014) and the other submitted by his lover (Nimet Kanji of Vancouver). The stakes for this choice are high for both Kuefler’s character and Kanji’s character. Pace cares about both and wants to please both, but I wasn’t convinced that his own stakes were high, and I found the eventual resolution to this difficulty a bit unsatisfying. A more interesting aspect to his character is some mention of a struggle to reconcile not being an artistic creator himself.
The script had some science-fictional or magic-realist aspects to it. Probably more magical, because I didn’t catch any real explanation about either the messages from the future or an apparent timeline-reset. This complicates Pace’s decision-making with some snippets of information about what happens to the characters in the future. The messages from the future (in the format of printed excerpts of written documentation) also give opportunities for the playwright to poke some pointed fun at academic and quasi-academic disciplines of the present day that use modern jargon and draw conclusions from very little documented evidence. Julien Arnold’s comic talents were a delight throughout the show but were particularly evident in sharing the messages from future writers. The characters of almost a hundred years ago also had fun with terminology shifts they discover, “gay” especially but also words like “existential” and “co-opted”.
Pace’s lover Jessie (Kanji), a jazz singer, is presented as African-American, or as various synonyms of the terminology of the day of various levels of appropriateness and inappropriateness. Some of the ways Gidger introduces her verged on gratuitous and made me uncomfortable. He also uses various ethnic slurs to introduce Kuefler’s character Denis/Denny, who is of Irish descent. Jessie is probably also significantly older than Pace, and although neither character is married their relationship is clearly on the down-low (not to be commonly known), probably due to the racial difference more than the age difference. “I’ll be your secret, but I won’t be your lie” she declares at one point. Some fascinating concepts in the social construction of race in that environment are hinted at.
The fifth character in the play, Rosamund Plinth, is played with brittle flirtatiousness by Lianna Makuch, a 2013 BFA grad. Her character seemed like a familiar type among the Bright Young Thing wealthy young women escorted by the “lost-generation” young men after the First World War. I was struck by the common trope that the young woman is in fragile mental health and needs to be protected and catered to, while Denny is probably more messed up but is not treated with much sympathy except by his friend Pace who doesn’t really know how to help him.
There are many references to truth and lies in the script, most of them not to be taken at face value. This script is convoluted enough that I probably would have benefited from a second viewing, but I didn’t have time.
The next Studio Theatre offering, Moira Buffini’s Loveplay, features some of the BFA Acting class of 2015 in the first show of their Studio Theatre season. It previews Wednesday October 29th and runs until Saturday November 8th, with tickets at Tix on the Square.