Tag Archives: elena porter

Betrayal, by Harold Pinter

Betrayal runs in reverse order – scenes from the end of an affair to its start several years earlier.  I didn’t know very much else about it beforehand, but that bit helped.   In the first scene, Elena Porter’s character Emma and Chris W Cook’s character Jerry are meeting for a drink a couple of years after their affair ended.  They both seemed terse, brittle, understated, and careful with each other.  Was that was due to their characters, the history between them, or just some mythical British reserve? It wasn’t clear.  Within a few more scenes I’d also watched each of them interact with Emma’s husband and Jerry’s best friend Robert (Cody Porter), and I was thinking that none of them seemed very happy, with each other or in general.

But as I learned in a playwriting class, flashbacks and hints raise the stakes.  How did these people get in this unhappy situation?  I wanted to find out, and I was primed to watch for clues.  In the first scene, Emma and Jerry share news of various people who had been in each other’s lives – Robert, Jerry’s wife Judith, their respective children, other associates.  None of these people ever appears on stage, but they are all mentioned as the story rewinds back through the years, and I realized that the conversations in the first scene weren’t so much awkward time-filling as significant information about what had happened.

The various scenes take place in bars and restaurants, in Emma and Robert’s home, in a tourist hotel, and in the flat Jerry and Emma had rented for afternoon rendezvous.  Director/designer Clinton Carew has made some fascinating choices in how to use the small black-box space of the Arts Barns Studio Theatre, with furniture for each setting poised not quite out of sight in multiple legs on either side, arranged asymmetrically.  The pub table where Jerry and Emma meet in the first scene is far upstage, constrained in a narrow space far from the audience.  As the story progresses backwards in time, the scenes are played closer and closer to the audience risers.  This reminded me of this company’s production of Three Sisters several years ago, in which the family’s gradual uprooting from their family home is paralleled by the actors gradually piling up abandoned furniture upstage and moving down until they end up almost in the audience moat.

All this furniture moving takes place with the help of a character moving with precise almost fussy physicality (Jake Tkaczyk, recently seen with Elena Porter in the Shadow Theatre production of Lungs).  He turns out to be a restaurant waiter in one of the later/earlier scenes.

Costume design is by Leona Brausen.  My impression in the first few scenes is that everything is colourless grey and beige, with all the characters in trenchcoats.   But as the years rewind to happier and more vulnerable times, the palette of costuming and lighting shifts warmer as well, towards a warm master-bedroom of affection and Emma’s splendid red party frock consistent with the characters’ feelings.

I’ve seen Chris W Cook playing many characters who are well-meaning stoner bros without a future, earnest and a little stupid, shortsighted and limited in worldview – the drugged-up guy in 3…2…1 bragging about contributing to his customers’ health as a Subway sandwich artist, the young fellow in Sweat getting out of jail with the swastika neck tattoo, the drinking buddy in Nighthawk Rules trying to drag his old friend away from his grownup boring girlfriend, the wannabe-artist in The Aliens.  But in some ways his turtleneck-sporting character in Betrayal is the opposite of those – a well-spoken successful literary agent and, as one of my preview-night companions said afterwards, “a complete cad.”

The playwright Harold Pinter is known for effective use of silences in conversation “the Pinter pause”, and having seen this production I can see why.   In the stillnesses I wondered what Robert wasn’t saying, what Emma wanted to say, what Jerry was being careful about.  I found Cody Porter’s constrained facial expressions particularly compelling.  I kept wanting him to smile – I kept wanting them all to smile – but he always seemed to be in pain.

I’d like to see Betrayal again, especially to watch those beginning scenes knowing where they come from.  But once is sufficient to understand the story, to have some sympathy for the not-entirely-likeable characters, and to be challenged and entertained.  Betrayal runs until the afternoon of Sunday June 2, with tickets through Fringe.

 

Shadow Theatre’s Lungs

Photo of Elena Porter and Jake Tkaczyk by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

The play I saw last weekend, Small Mouth Sounds, was like an exercise in telling a story on stage after removing almost all of the spoken words.  All the other parts of how a story is supported on stage, the costumes, the props, the actions and stage business, the set, the lighting and sound effects … they were enough.  I watched various characters arrive at a retreat centre, and I could tell what they were like and how the retreat was going to work for them.  One arrived late and on her phone, one slipped his flipflops gracefully into the shoe rack at the side and sank into a meditation pose that was in everyone else’s way, one wore a Tilley hat with chinstrap and an MEC catalogue full of outdoor clothing … I was anticipating all the ways these people might get on each other’s nerves over the weekend, and I was kind of right.

The current production in the Shadow Theatre season, Lungs by Duncan Macmillan, could be the opposite exercise.  It’s as if the playwright, and the director John Hudson, and the designer Elise Jason, all sat down and said, what if we gave them great words, but almost nothing else –  a big bare stage, no props, one simple costume each, no sound cues, near-imperceptible lighting shifts – and launched them into the narrative of two people in the middle of a conversation they’ve never had before.  “A baby?” , Elena Porter’s character responds incredulously to a question Jake Tkaczyk’s character must have asked just before the lights came up.  He’d been thinking about it for a while, and although she’d assumed it would happen sometime in her future, she hadn’t thought of the future being now.   So they talk.  And they avoid talking.  And they talk some more.

Is it the right time for us?  Is it okay for us to want a child when the planet is already overpopulated?  The couple jumps between their personal anxieties “I want to still read books and do things” “I don’t want to be one of those fathers who never notices his kids unless they’re winning.” “What if I don’t bond with it?” and their bigger-picture worries about the state of the environment.   They reassure each other they are good people who bicycle, recycle, and buy coffee from local independent shops “even when it tastes like dirt” – but here they are, trying to create another person anyway.  In some ways, the script is specific to the 2019 flavour of those big-picture anxieties – partly about climate change and partly about doing the culturally-agreed right things – but the motivations and worries would be familiar to people of previous generations as well.  “This isn’t the best time, I take it, to be giving hostages to fortune?” as fictional character Lady Peter Wimsey (nee Harriet Vane) announces her pregnancy to Lord Peter in Thrones, Dominations in 1936.

Mostly, Porter’s character is the one whose worries are full of words, spilling over each other and contradicting each other, but Tkaczyk’s character (they don’t have names) also gets an anxiety monologue when he can’t sleep.

The script cuts brilliantly from the middle of one conversation to the important bit of the next one.  We don’t see the characters having sex – we see them looking at each other realizing they both want to, and then we see them collapsed in bed afterwards appreciating it.  Or, in one marvelous scene, we see them after the concept of conception has actually ruined the mood.  Not in the more-commonly-portrayed way of people feeling required to perform on schedule, but she wants the act to be romantic and symbolic, and she is put off by what she calls his “porno face”.

And, true to my own perception of life, things seem to speed up as life goes on, until the important bits flash by with one poignant line each (and usually a “where’s the camera?”)   It matters that the action starts in a near-contemporary time, because by skipping ahead to later in the characters’ lives, we also get disturbing hints of what the playwright is imagining for what the environment and the world might be like in the future by the time the characters get old.  I don’t think I’ve seen this done before, much.

Lungs is playing at the Varscona Theatre until Sunday March 31st.  Because the performers both joined the production on short notice, in the early performance I saw they were both carrying scripts – but it didn’t matter much.  I didn’t find it distracting, and it didn’t seem to prevent them from connecting with the audience and with each other.  I cried.

 

 

To separate, to cling, to Cleave

One character in Elena Belyea’s new play Cleave explains the concept of words that are autoantonyms – words that have two near-opposite meanings, like screen, fast, or bound.  This gives the viewer a hint toward unpacking the play’s title, as it may refer to characters clinging together or being split apart, drawing towards new choices in their lives or detaching from unwanted ones.

Like many of my favourite stories on stage, on screen, or in library books, the narrative of Cleave shows the separate but intersecting objectives of several characters through a cusp time in their lives.  Four of the characters are part of a family, parents (Dave Horak and Elena Porter) who turn out to have their own secret unhappy histories and teenage children (Emma Houghton and Luc Tellier).  I was particularly delighted by the subtlety of Emma Houghton’s character journey, as I had misjudged her on first appearance as a sulky shallow cheerleader wheedling money out of her dad for new workout clothes in which to make an impression.

The other two characters are a new kid at school, 17 year old Aaron who is intersex and trans (Jordan Fowlie), and his therapist.  As he explains to his new therapist (Natasha Napoleao) in the first scene, he’s moved away from his parents in order to avoid the stigma of transition in a small town and in order to get the therapist’s recommendation he needs before gender-affirming surgery.  The therapy scenes provide useful exposition of the background concepts of intersex and trans lives.  Sometimes Aaron is explaining things to his therapist and sometimes she is providing vocabulary and information to the audience while connecting with Aaron.   They also give important insight into Aaron’s thoughtful sarcastic character by providing a context in which he is relatively open, compared to his careful cautious demeanour at school, with his new friend’s family, and in another situation.

I loved the scenes with the two outsider boys sitting on the school steps not quite looking at each other and not rushing into friendship.  And the wordless gestures of trust on both sides of that relationship in the final scene moved me immensely.  I can imagine happy endings in the future for at least some of the characters, but the play ends appropriately with the loose ends not all tied up.

I also want to write about another scene that horrified me and hypnotized me in ways that also thrilled me as a fan of compelling stories.  But I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else.  So I will put a brief comment about it at the end of this post.

Cleave is playing at the Backstage Theatre until Saturday April 7th.  There is an allowance of Pay-What-You-Can tickets available at the door for every performance.

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The Photo

The Photo is about an hour long.  I’m glad that it wasn’t longer because I was so worried about the characters that I could hardly breathe.

Elena Porter and Michael Peng stagger separately onto the stage, not quite aware of each other.  At first they both seem shocked by something that’s just happened, but their responses are different enough that the nature of the awful thing wasn’t immediately clear to me.  But the basic sad event is clarified quickly, so that one character seems to be grieving in a conventionally comprehensible way and the other is alarmingly detached from reality.  I did keep wondering in the back of my mind whether I was wrong, or whether more horrible details would come out later, but I was relieved to have my guess confirmed, and could then watch the couple cope and connect.

I don’t think I’ve seen Michael Peng and Elena Porter on stage together before, but I’ve seen both of them in challenging roles in dark or painful stories – Peng in An Accident and in The Kite Runner, Porter in The Three Sisters and in The Clean House.  And they were both good in The Photo.   Peng’s thin-lipped quiet background anguish and Porter’s sparkling surface cheer over pain suited the roles well.  The script provided enough resolution that I could breathe again, and I felt as if the two characters were beginning to understand each other’s needs and would be able to take care of themselves and each other.

I do not have personal experience of the kind of loss experienced by the characters.  I don’t think I’d recommend this play to someone who has, without offering to warn him or her, but on the other hand without knowing what to expect I found the initial scene disturbingly effective, and I don’t want to spoil that for anyone else.

The Photo is playing at C103 until May 23rd.  It’s a Theatre of the New Heart production, written by Dana Rayment and directed by Michelle Kennedy.  Advance tickets are, of course, at Tix on the Square.

The Clean House

Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House played at the Varscona the same week in March as Dirt was playing at TACOS Space across Whyte Ave.  I wasn’t the only reviewer to notice this coincidence, but the other ones all beat me to posting about it.

The Clean House covered some serious topics but with a very light touch.  The cast was all female except for Troy O’Donnell, who played a couple of minor characters.  Elena Porter was enchanting as a housecleaner from Brazil who wants to be a comedian.  Liana Shannon and Coralie Cairns play sisters Lane and Virginia, who have different priorities but who are both fussy and not very happy, making justifications for their unhappy marriages.  Shannon Boyle played a couple of characters who seemed minor at first, but one of them later became very important in the story.  Porter and Boyle both spoke English with accents from South American countries, and also spoke Portuguese sometimes.  I wished my Portuguese-speaking friend could have been there.

The set was mostly white, furniture, window frames, and props, with most of the characters dressed in crisp tidy neutral tones.  The sisters, a surgeon and a full-time homemaker, both had constrained body language and I don’t think they ever touched each other. “Think of her as a patient, not a person” Virginia counsels Lane, who is uncomfortable giving orders to her cleaner.  Elena Porter’s character Mathilde wore comfortable black clothing and seemed much more comfortable with her emotions and her environment.   So by comparison, her emotions seemed much larger than appropriate in the sisters’ world, grieving for her dead parents and celebrating her joyful childhood with parents who were always making each other laugh.  We saw her parents dance and laugh and touch affectionately in memory sequences, as represented by O’Donnell and Boyle.  And Mathilde told the two women of her quest to remember the “perfect joke” that her father had created and told to her mother, leading to her mother’s death from laughing.

Gradually, the controlled lives get out of control, as we find out that Lane’s husband Charles (O’Donnell) is leaving her for Ana, a South American geologist (Boyle), and then that Ana is dying.  Charles’s response to this news is mostly to disappear, ostensibly in search of an obscure cure, while the other women care for Ana.  The ending had me in tears but not completely sad ones.  It was lovely.