Moira Buffini’s Loveplay opened last Thursday as part of the University of Alberta Studio Theatre series, directed by faculty member Jan Selman. I saw it the night before opening along with a very responsive preview crowd, full of sighs and squeals of delight and “Awww”s and “you owned him girl!“s, and I thought it was a lot of fun.
The play showcases ten vignettes of some kind of sexual or romantic interaction, taking place at the same location at different times in history, from Roman Britain to the present. Each scene starts with some kind of title card introducing the era, in some format consistent with the design (the Roman Britain one looked like chiseled stone). The six performers in the show (Nikki Hulowski, Maxwell Theodore Lebeuf, Kabriel Lilly, Dylan Parsons, Zvonimir Rac, and Morgan Yamada) each played multiple roles, as well as assisting the running crew with transitions.
I appreciated the playwright’s choice to include a glimpse of sexual assault but not to make it either the first or the last story. In a particularly disturbing Dark Ages scene, three men (Lebeuf, Parsons, and Rac) discuss the woman they are consecutively assaulting (Lilly) in chillingly dehumanized terms, and after they leave her for dead she howls in solitary anguish, conveying the impression of hopelessness with no expectation of revenge or justice. The performers in this scene balance the horrific situation with the ordinary dialogue sensitively.
The most light-hearted scenes in the narrative are those of the Renaissance (1584) and the Age of Innocence (1969), both of which include Hulowski and Rac playing a couple of long duration. The Renaissance scene opens with Lebeuf and Hulowski declaiming heightened dialogue about their true love, which turns out to be rehearsal of a playwright (Rac)’s autobiographical work-in-progress. This offers lots of amusing opportunity for humour about the creative process, about 16th century theatre, and about the trajectory of a romantic relationship between a young woman and her tutor. The Age of Innocence scene is about a young couple attempting to host some kind of free-love drop-in encounter for the first time and getting cold feet, while their guests (Parsons and Lilly) seek relief from their relationship ennui.
Various other scenes explore power imbalances in sexual relationships (Yamada as governess in Lebeuf’s 1823 household, Parsons as an artisan hired by Enlightenment-era scientist Lilly to satisfy her curiosity about the male form) and prostitution (Yamada’s two prostitute characters both seem to be independent businesswomen taking charge in their relationships with their clients).
More hopeful resolutions are seen in The Age of Empire (1898) and The Age of Excess (contemporary). In The Age of Empire, two men who had been friends as boys find new connection and “the birth of love” despite one being an artist and the other a married vicar. The Age of Excess is set in the office of a matchmaker (Lilly) who is preparing to introduce some clients despite her own romantic difficulties – her girlfriend/assistant (Hulowski) is angry with her for being unwilling to commit, and flirting with the clients in response. One of the clients (Parsons) embodies all the worst characteristics of entitlement and pickupartistry, from putting down the woman he’s meeting to whining “It’s not fair, why wasn’t she like that with me?” Yet the two clients who hit it off immediately and leave together (Yamada and Lebeuf) do so having each disclosed some aspects of their difficult history (she’s a divorcée and single parent; he’s a recovering alcoholic), so as an audience member I was left with the message that learning from mistakes and being open can lead to mutual happy relationships.
Throughout the journey through history, we encounter many observations on sexual politics and relationships that have relevance to current life. A character in the Renaissance comments on the perceived difference between a lover’s kiss and that of a wife, as “what you bestow and what I own.” A cloistered nun in the New Millennium (1099) scene wonders “why would a man choose such a life?” A later character mentions that there is no insult like “man-whore”, that what is an insult for a woman translates to “lover” for a man.
The simple set focuses on a sharply raked square platform, representing the square of land through the ages. Some of the set elements (walls, platforms) appeared for only one scene; others were seen later as ruins. Characters in the various eras made reference to previous uses or buildings, sometimes with dramatic irony (the Roman soldier is building a latrine, which the Dark Ages characters then assume must have been some type of temple).
Loveplay is light-hearted but not lightweight. Considering it along with the playwright’s Gabriel, I am looking forward to seeing her Blavatsky’s Tower cast with the other performers in the graduating BFA class at the end of this month. Loveplay continues until this Saturday, with tickets available at the door and at Tix on the Square.