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Another family at a cusp, in The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble

Beth Graham’s play The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, directed by Bradley Moss at Theatre Network, explores a familiar family crisis time with some refreshing new thoughts.  In my adult acting classes, we’ve studied scenes from Daniel MacIvor’s Marion Bridge and from The Attic, The Pearls, and Three Fine Girls by Jennifer Brewin, Leah Cherniak, Ann-Marie Macdonald, Alisa Palmer and Martha Ross, both of which are stories about adult children who return to the family home when a parent is dying.  I’ve been through similar experiences, twice, so I can understand why such crisis times work well for a playwright, with all the characters having old baggage and resentments with each other, all stuck in a current high-stakes situation.  And because I remember what it was like sharing our childhood home with my siblings while we spent our days at the hospital and our evenings scanning through Mum’s television channels and filling up her fridge with fast-food leftovers while the neighbours’ casseroles went uneaten, stories of interesting characters going through similar struggles resonate and appeal to me.

The first exciting difference about Bernice Trimble was that the widowed mother, Bernice (Susan Gilmour, recently seen in Drowsy Chaperone and in Spamalot), was a character on stage, rather than an invalid in an offstage bedroom.  She turns out to be a fascinating character too, honest and determined and accepting of each of her children’s differences.   Having the mother on stage interacting with her children made this a rich fascinating story of earlier stages of illness and aging than the stories I alluded to in the first paragraph.  It also helped to illustrate the title.  “Gravitational pull” is the playwright’s expression for how, for better or for worse, an extended family is often drawn together by one specific person (maybe a parent or grandparent).  Astronomical metaphors were used throughout the narrative but not in a contrived way.

The story is told mostly from the viewpoint of Iris, the middle child (Clarice Eckford) on whom Bernice depends for the most difficult requests.  The narrative jumps back and forth between one later important day and a series of scenes of family members interacting over several months.  Iris frequently addresses the audience, narrating what happens between the scenes from her point of view.  The set represents both Iris’s kitchen and their mother’s.  It is generally clear which location is being presented, even without narrator Iris’s clue of setting out salt and pepper shakers every time the set is her mother’s house.   Many family traditions and customs are referred to and repeated, from Bernice’s habits of embracing her children and her endearments for them, to the rituals of family meeting and  making a classic 1960s-style casserole.  As Iris tells the story, she often uses the expression “That was that … only it wasn’t” as a transition.

The other two siblings, older sister Sarah (Patricia Zentilli) and younger brother Peter (Jason Chinn), respond to the mother’s announcement that she has Alzheimer’s disease in their own fashions, Sarah with denial and plans for second opinions and treatments, and Peter with awkward taciturn acceptance.  Sarah and Iris are also caught up by disputing who is “last to know” important family business, another familiar touch.  I thought that Peter’s small role was presented effectively and with sympathy by the playwright and the actor, because his quiet avoidance and flashes of kindness could so easily have been overplayed into humour, and they were not.

The audience gets only a single disturbing glimpse of the progression of Bernice’s illness before she enlist’s Iris’s commitment to be accessory to her suicide.  And Iris, the one who might appear least successful or least mature by some of her family ‘s measures (chatty and scattered, still single, no children, working as a temp) is the one who accepts and supports her mother’s right to make that choice, despite the pain it causes her.

I found it emotionally evocative and not manipulative, a believable portrait of a family and an illness.  The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble continues at Theatre Network until November 23rd, with tickets available here.

Blown away by Let the Light of Day Through

Last night I saw Collin Doyle’s play Let the Light of Day Through.

I have a huge backlog of performances I haven’t written about yet, but I couldn’t go to sleep last night until I wrote about this play, and none of my usual correspondents were on line or answering their text messages.

Let the Light of Day Through is a Theatre Network production, starring Lora Brovold and Jesse Gervais, and directed by Bradley Moss.  I didn’t read much about it ahead of time – just took a tip from a reliable friend – so I just had a vague idea that it was about a couple dealing with something sad or unmentionable in their past.

That wasn’t wrong.  And if you’d rather not know any more than the fact that I cried all the way home and am now telling you to go see it, stop here and go to the theatrenetwork website to buy tickets (it’s only playing until Sunday afternoon).

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But if you don’t mind spoilers, or if you have already seen it or you aren’t going to be able to anyway, I can go into more detail.  The show posters show a door opening from a dark hallway into a room flooded with eerie light.  The set visible before the show had a brick wall, a wooden door, and a purplish light escaping from behind it.

I was expecting to meet a couple who were angry with each other, distanced, or with some obvious psychiatric troubles.  Those are the obvious tropes for survivors of family traumas of the kind that is gradually revealed here.  I’ve been fortunate not to have relevant personal experience, but that’s how it usually is in books, movies, or theatre (Next to Normal, for example).  But the characters Rob and Chris in this play still like each other, still find joy in life and hope for their future, and are still very funny people who enjoy each other’s compatible playfulness with the shorthand of people who have known each other a long time.   These two people who have endured an awful senseless loss are the most in-tune with each other, the most respectful of any male-female couple I’ve seen in fiction in ages.  Their tolerance and mild irritation with each other’s quirks are so affectionate at base compared to many fictional couples who are supposed to be happy together but display an ongoing tension that makes me wince.  Maybe I’ve just been watching too much Mad About You on Netflix.

The common fictional trope is that a person or family who experiences unbearable trauma will somehow almost forget the whole thing or make it completely unmentionable.  But it becomes clear that Rob and Chris have done something different in order to get on with their lives.  They’ve made an agreement to pretend, and in fact when they discover that they’ve both forgotten a milestone date, they are at first horrified by the idea that they might ever forget.  This consensual pretending then turns out to be a big part of how they work through their traumatic past and how the audience gets to learn the story as they come to terms with it.  Rather than asking the audience to accept the usual convention of narrative flashback, in which the actors are suddenly playing different characters or playing the usual characters at a younger age, in this play the playwright uses the playful storytelling and reminiscing of the characters as they remain their contemporary selves but re-tell the story to each other.  “Remember that time?  Okay, I’ll be your mother in this one…”  This technique made me more fond of the characters, and it also made the story flow very easy to follow.  In a couple of places where it might have been ambiguous, the characters themselves made the clarification “Wait, is this now, or are we being seventeen?”

The funniest parts of the play were two sex scenes. One is in the contemporary story where they’re obviously both interested in each other and making fun of fantasy conventions but have slightly different expectations for how the scene will play out.  The other is a hilarious acting-out of an awkwardly acrobatic teenage encounter.

The play runs about two hours with no intermission.  This was a good choice because the trajectory of the story didn’t have a good breakpoint.  The set seemed simple but was important, and the lighting made the plain wall and door fit many different settings.   The actors were both very good, playing different people who were both likeable and sympathetic.  And Collin Doyle’s treatment of how these people cope with the events of their lives is just different enough, both in plot and in the way the story is told, that I was completely drawn in.  It didn’t feel melodramatic or emotionally manipulative at all.  Near the end of the play, the only sound I could hear from around me was an awful lot of sniffling. I definitely wasn’t the only one weeping.

One of the best performances I’ve seen since starting this blog.  Seriously.

Azimuth Theatre’s Free-man on the Land – better than its blurb!

Free-man on the Land, playing at the Roxy Theatre on 124 Street, is the most unconventional or postmodern performance I have seen since the Fringe Festival.  And it’s fun!  It was both more playful and more provocative than I expected, and less of a humourless rant (or to keep the alliteration, I could say polemic).   The handbill description really doesn’t make it sound as interesting as it is.

I saw a preview show, with the theatre not very full, so I sat in the second row with nobody in the first row.  When I realised at the start that the narrator was ignoring the fourth wall and other conventions of theatre, I suddenly wondered if I would regret being so visible – and of course they called on me, but I think I responded well (all this improv training is coming in handy!)

I’ve read a bit about the Free-man on the Land movement and some of its proponents.  This Edmonton Journal article is one of the more entertaining bits.  I have a lot of sympathy for many people who call themselves anarchists whom I might describe as grassroots activists, but the FOTL thing has me sort of scratching my head and backing away, in general.

In the play, there’s enough story shown and hinted to make the main character (the man commonly known as Richard Svoboda, played by Des Parenteau) interesting and to suggest how he developed his views.  His attitudes bring him into conflict with his partner, played by Dale Ladouceur, who also sings several original songs during the show while accompanying herself on a Chapman Stick.  Her character isn’t quite as interesting as Richard, but more than a foil.  Other parts (a narrator and his chorus or counterfoil, a taxman, a court-appointed defence lawyer, a former employer, etc) were played by director Murray Utas and playwright Steve Pirot.

The Azimuth Theatre production of Free-man on the Land is playing at the Roxy until Sunday January 27th.  If you like weird theatre, you should go see it.

With Bells On – subtle, silly, and slightly seasonal

When I read that the Guys in Disguise production With Bells On, written and directed by Darrin Hagen, was set in an elevator, I thought it might be mostly witty dialogue from two talking heads, because how much action could there actually be in an elevator.  Then, remembering that it was Guys in Disguise, I decided it would be two talking heads in interesting costumes.

Well, there was witty dialogue, and there were interesting costumes.  There was also a surprising amount of action and body language which added to the delightful characterizations and built the story.  The publicity posters show the obvious contrast between the two characters, Ted, a middle-aged guy in a suit (James Hamilton), and Natasha, a very tall drag performer in an astonishing costume (Paul Welch), so it was easy to see that the premise of the show would be people from different worlds thrown together.  I loved the ways that the characters quickly turned out to be more than archetypes, and the credible ways that they connected despite  Ted’s social awkwardness and Natasha’s fragile sarcasm.  I wasn’t sure, at first, whether Ted realised that Natasha was male, and I was hugely relieved when that discovery didn’t prompt a 20th-century over-the-top homophobic freakout à la Cage aux Folles, just some awkwardness and self-criticism.  It was clear that Natasha had experienced her share of hurtful responses and was braced for another one, but that wasn’t who Ted was.  In a longer play or in a short story, I would have hoped to learn more about the backgrounds sketched out for both characters, especially why they were both alone at this point in their lives.  I’m a sucker for credible happy endings, and this one brought tears to my eyes.  There was nothing at all in the story about Christmas except for Natasha’s costume, and I liked that.  The program notes (written in the first person but not signed) say “This play is for anyone who was left out of holiday celebrations because they didn’t fit in”.  Although I have some experience of that myself, I had not thought recently about what a ubiquitous experience that would be in some communities, and how shared experience of rejection can lead to connection.

The elevator set design worked well, and the sound and lighting conveyed changes as needed.  Natasha’s costume was just fun.  I noticed the contrast between her awkward steps in platform heels when walking or standing and her smooth dance moves in the same shoes when she was in performance mode.  Her whole face changed when she was lip-synching for an imaginary audience, compared to when she was protecting herself from a stranger and then getting to know him.

This was my first encounter with Guys in Disguise – except for encountering some performers parading and handbilling at the Fringe – and I would definitely go to more of their shows.  It was also my first visit to the Roxy Theatre, a classic movie theatre refurbished into a proscenium-stage performing-arts space with a beautiful wooden floor and comfortable seats.  It is more intimate than Zeidler Hall or Victoria School auditorium.

There’s one more performance of With Bells On this afternoon.  I’m also hoping to make it to Chris Craddock’s Velveteen Rabbit and to Best Newfoundland Christmas Pageant Ever, to add to last weekend’s viewing of Nutcracker Unhinged as this year’s collection of untraditional Christmas theatre.  I haven’t seen A Christmas Carol on the stage and I haven’t seen Nutcracker live either, but I bet I can see them some other year!