Tag Archives: from cradle to stage

Starless, by Eric Rice

This year’s selection for Walterdale Theatre’s From Cradle to Stage new plays project was one longer work instead of a series of one-acts, Eric Rice’s work Starless.  I saw it tonight, and I found it unexpectedly moving.  So much so that I had trouble articulating questions at the talkback after the show.

That is a compliment.   I guess it’s a compliment to share among the writer, the dramaturge Tracy Carroll, the director Marsha Amanova, and several of the cast members.

Starless is a story about two homeless people, Ralph (Mark Anderako) and Mary (Monica Maddaford), and the people they interact with during one difficult day, a police constable (Dave Wolkowski), a boy (Carter Hockley), a blog reporter (Stephanie O’Neill), an artist/art-vendor (Jim Zalcik), a priest (Zalcik), and a landlord (Wolkowski).  The title refers to an advantage of sleeping outdoors over sleeping under a roof, that outdoors you can see the stars.  Ralph, the main character, seemed both credible and interesting – physically frail, foulmouthed, dirty, cynical, but at the same time having a clear sense of fairness and a tendency to poetic metaphor.  The audience never finds out Ralph’s whole backstory, because he’s not someone who would tell any of the people he encounters that day, and as his love Mary says (approximately – I stopped taking notes), “We don’t tell those stories.  Those were just things that happened.  We just tell the story that ends with living happily ever after.”

The set was simple but evocative of various outdoor locations – a park, a church doorstep, a coffee shop patio, the back of a low-rent apartment building.  Stage lighting is still a mystery to me, so I was astonished to realize at intermission that the floor was actually not green; it was just lit that way during the park scenes.  The music at intermission and after the show (Don Henley’s “Starry Starry Night” and a familiar cover of the Beatles’ “Let It Be”) was just perfect, fitting the story and the mood with emotionally familiar song, and I don’t remember now whether there was pre-show music or not.   I also appreciated the artist’s painting representing a monochrome version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night (“I call it Van Gogh misplaces his palette”), recalling my recent visit to the original work in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Maddaford and Hockley also played characters with enough depth to be intriguing and their own personal challenges.   Maddaford played Mary with an appealing serenity and some native shrewdness, and it eventually turned out to be easy to see why she and Ralph were together.  Hockley had great facial expressions when he was listening, very believable for a kid who is accustomed to be on the edges of adult conversations that he might disagree with or worry about.  His speaking was occasionally difficult to follow, although I’m not sure whether he was too fast, too quiet, or just not making his words distinct.

The minor character who most caught my attention was Jim Valcik’s artist, identified in the program as Vendor, a glib and self-absorbed painter who jumps to assure Ralph he can identify with him but doesn’t listen to him.  “Chaos and bars?  Yep, that was our art-student life; it was great!”

Starless is playing at the Walterdale through Saturday night, 8 pm curtain.  Advance tickets  are at Tix on the Square (listed as From Cradle to Stage), and also available at the door.  Thursday is 2-for-1 night.

From Cradle to Stage: new short works at the Walterdale

Meeting up with an actor friend and going to an evening of short theatre at the Walterdale Playhouse on a warm spring evening reminded me of the Fringe festival.  Except for a few details like the parking lot being nearly empty, and  there being no food vendors or crowds or street performers.  Oh, and in August I love the air conditioning in the Walterdale, but in May I ended up a bit underdressed, just too involved in the story in front of me to fish out my jacket from under my seat.

From Cradle to Stage is a festival of new short plays, a tradition at the Walterdale.  Playwrights make submissions earlier in the season, and the winners then work with dramaturges (is that the plural?) to develop the scripts for production in May.  This year’s event had two plays, “The Ugly Spot” by Lisa Lorentz-Gilroy and “Exposure” by Stephen Allred, Bethany Hughes, and Jessie McPhee.

“The Ugly Spot” showed a brief encounter between two young strangers who had both come to the same isolated place (the Ugly Spot of the title) for solitude.  As you might expect, they are both indignant and defensive about having to share the bit of public land that they’d thought of as private.  But because this is a play rather than real life, they don’t both get up and leave; they stay and communicate enough that we find out interesting things about both of them.  Chance Heck and Cayley McConaghy both portray unhappy lonely twitchy young people.  There was one apparent inconsistency in the related backstory that distracted me disproportionately, but I won’t write it here since it might not bother you the same way.  On the other hand, the ending was done in a more subtle way than I had expected, leaving some things for the audience to know and a character left not knowing.  I thought that was the strongest thing about the writing.

“Exposure” was a more complex portrayal, as you would expect from the longer running time (55 minutes vs 25 minutes).  There was some similarity in plot device with “The Ugly Spot”.  One or two of the people tweeting about the shows thought this juxtaposition was effective; I thought it was unfortunate.  It made the second one easier to guess and it stretched my tolerance for coincidence a bit past credulity.  The premise of this show was three different characters, each struggling with a debilitating fear, encountering each other in an inpatient treatment program and moving towards healing in their interactions with each other.  There were no counsellors or other staff members of the facility shown on stage, although there were a couple of voiceover announcements and the characters referred to their assignments and therapy-group exercises.  As the program blurb said, “sometimes it’s the people you meet there, not the program, that allows you to move forward”.  I might quibble with the grammar, but the story was effective in demonstrating how troubled people who are motivated to change can help each other.

Early on, the characters are not yet interacting with each other – we learn about their thoughts through alternating monologues with each sitting on a straight chair facing forwards.  Each of the three characters has a different set of body language for portraying his or her state of fear and avoidance – Eric (Morgan D. D. Refshauge)’s twitchiness, Anna (Sarah Culkin)’s continual chatter, and most compellingly Will (Sam Banagan)’s demeanour of completely avoiding eye contact with anyone while actually sitting front and centre facing the audience.  As the story progresses and the characters begin to reach out to each other, we see each of them begin to drop these mechanisms, relaxing a bit and then retreating a bit when challenged.  Eric seemed to recover a bit too easily for me to believe, but I found all of them likeable intelligent people and I wanted them to succeed.  There were glimpses of affectionate humour all through what was in some ways a disturbing story.  As a long-time digital immigrant, I was pleased to see Internet-friendship not being portrayed as pathological in itself, although it had been part of at least one character’s coping tools.

The plays run every night until Saturday, with tickets at Tix on the Square or at the door.  And I’d love to know what you thought of them too.