03 November 2014
The Bakelite Masterpiece (Tarragon Theatre)
This new one-act by Kate Cayley tells the thematically rich (and fictionally embellished) story of Han van Meegeren (Georgie Johnson) whose sale of a Vermeer painting to a Nazi in occupied Holland put him on trial for treason at the end of the war. His life-saving argument that it was a forgery is put to the test by his interrogator Geert Piller (an enthrallingly bottled Irene Poole) as she challenges him to paint her in the style of the Dutch master she loves and he claims to be able to mimic. It’s a varyingly emotional and intellectual piece of writing belittled slightly by the addiction tragedy that distracts from the more nuanced character motivations but enlivened greatly by the restrained direction of Richard Rose and the inspired work of the design team. Set and costume designer Charlotte Dean creates a deceptively simple playing space that on first glance is merely a prison cell but at second glance is a painter’s canvas. Across said canvas, the real star of the production, lighting designer André du Toit, paints a beautiful and precise picture of shadow and light, capturing the famed quality of a Vermeer portrait with Poole and Johnson as his subjects. A story about a forgery, The Bakelite Masterpiece captures on stage the visual effect of an authentic masterwork.
Beef (Sorry Goat Productions)
I really like playwright Michael Musi’s concept here. Max takes his girlfriend to his favourite burger place, she doesn’t like it and they break up. The ultra-basic superficiality of that setup opens so many doors to explore the inner workings of a flawed, complicated relationship between two flawed, complicated people while balancing the personal angst with the comedic self-awareness that a double-meaning title like Beef implies and a relationship drama about artistic twenty-somethings needs to not seem self-indulgent. Unfortunately, Musi’s writing does not live up to his concept’s potential. Only the leading character of Max is fleshed out enough to warrant proper examination. We hear about his fears as an average-looking guy next to his gorgeous girlfriend Kali (Supinder Wraich) and watch as his insecurities about his job as a struggling commercial actor and goofy nice-guy sidekick to his gym rat best friend Robby (Ronnie Rowe) take over and sabotage the relationship that never seemed all that grounded in the first place. Every other character is a cliché spouting pop psychology or setting up lame metaphors and unnecessary twists. The fact that the playwright also plays Max (charmingly, I might add) points to what is probably the real problem here- Beef doesn’t seem like it’s really about Max and Kali and the underlying troubles that bring their 2-year relationship to an unceremonious and almost comical end. It feels like Musi airing his “goofy nice-guy” grievances and using thinly sketched characters and an author’s mouthpiece protagonist to do it. Even the poster defines a “beef” as “a complaint or a grievance”; I blame myself for expecting something more.
The Skriker (Red One Collective/Theatre Brouhaha)
WHAT?!?! was my general reaction to this production. But unlike many plays that elicit that response, I’m fairly certain it was the intended effect of Daniel Pagett’s new staging of this demanding Caryl Churchill text. Everything about the production is designed to throw the audience off balance, including my favourite innovation- the reversal of the Storefront Theatre. I was completely disoriented, having been taken around back to arrive at my seat in what looked like the same audience configuration as almost every other show I’d seen at the Bloor West indie space, then asked to exit by passing over the stage and through the curtain to what seemed like the backstage area but was actually… the lobby?! The reversal didn’t have much of a practical effect on the play itself (the setup really did appear to be no different from most) but it was the lynchpin of the overall effect of what’s up is down, what’s black is white and what’s good is bad in the faerie world of the play. Churchill’s text- in both its abstract story and absurdist style- is not my cup of tea with The Skriker’s ever-changing identity making it hard follow and nearly impossible to invest in emotionally (my favourite incarnation was Luke Marty’s charm and danger balancing act). The cast is a large and excellent one full of familiar faces who flesh out the confusing craziness well, including scene-stealer Claire Armstrong who infuses Churchill’s almost Seuss-like rhyming narration with enough humour and natural storytelling ability that the meaning of the nearly impossible to follow word formations almost seems clear. The stage is flanked for almost the entire production by the distractingly entertaining presences of Andy Trithardt, playing his original score live on the guitar, and a pants-less Jakob Ehman as an unexplained character called “The Passerby”, perpetually dancing to a tune heard only by him. I’m not the target audience for a piece like this- I like my characters relatable and my stories coherent- but I hate having to write off a thoughtful piece of work because it doesn’t hit me quite the right way, so this is when I take my opportunity to sing the praises of the life-saving device known as the Director’s Note and lament the fact that Pagett chose not to write one. A lot of artists believe that their work should be absorbed with fresh eyes, and I completely understand that instinct, but I (and I’m sure most audience members) needed a bit more help here. I wanted to know what Pagett was aiming for, why he chose Churchill’s text, how his approach took the play in a new direction. I’m lucky in that I get to speak with a lot of artists about their work, and I can say with absolute certainty that not one of those conversations had made me less interested in said work; in fact, in most cases I’ve wanted to see it again in order to see it more clearly. Even one short paragraph in the program from Pagett, telling the audience what Skriker means to him, would have made it mean a lot more to me.