My Theatre

05 November 2012

The Past Echoes the Present in Summerfolk

By // Theatre (Toronto)

It is not that often we get to see realism on stage anymore.  Even more rare: three hour productions.  Do people even have that sort of attention span these days?  Lucky thing for intermissions.  At least in opera you have the chance of being taken on a musical journey.  But this is three hours – I repeat, Three Hours – of dense dialogue dealing with the delusions, hopes, and aspirations of a group of young-at-heart souls that are desperate for something different.  Of course, Maxim Gorky’s 1904 work excellently captures the raw sentiments and spirit of change that filled middle-lower class Russians who would be put to the test by the massacres on Bloody Sunday (1905) of peaceful protesters which would lead to a series of uprisings and the eventual fall of the Tsarist regime (1917).  Internationally acclaimed director, actor, and teacher Dean Gilmour has done a great job at capturing the links between these characters who proclaim a stop against “indifference” and contemporary examples of exploitation on the part of those with too much power, quoting the “Goldman-Sachs” food scandal and lack of concern for rising “arctic sea” waters in his director’s notes.

The first act introduces us to the players and power couples who contrast one another rather engagingly with their unique quirks, despite the bickering, ranting, and lamenting common to them all.  Various intelligentsias who, nonetheless, have a different story and prospective on life to bring to the table gather in and around the summer home of the eloquent Varvara (Elysia White).  It is in their subtle particulars that the spirit of the play can be found since, even in their simplest moments, they appear to always embody some sort of ominous outlook.  And this can be seen, perhaps, most boldly in Olga (Alanna Bale), who epitomizes the sense of fear associated with a changeless life full of boredom.  Throughout the summer-induced chaos, Varvara must keep in balance a repressed unhappiness, an existential crisis of finding her place in the world, and the enduring expectation of being a proper wife and woman.  She would ideally like everyone to get along and sit down to take tea, but the other women are more interested in gossiping juvenilely or venting about their petty bourgeoisie concerns.  Providing much needed comic-relief and great contrast to the other more high-strung characters are Vlas (Tal Shulman), Varvara’s joker yet wholesome brother and clerk to her husband Sergei, who deliberately declares himself the “fool” because everyone is “stupid” so why not be “stupider.”  Also delivering a wonderful performance is Alex Cote as Pavel.  Part boisterous and giddy, part fearful of EVERYTHING, it is both shocking and endearing when he professes his long-time love for Varvara who has “nothing” to reciprocate.  You just feel so bad for him.  He later comes back for the last act’s garden party, rejuvenated from his much needed vacation to the South, informing us of the joys associated with having seen the sea for the first time.  However, his cheery demeanor is not enough to prevent a later outburst of opinions among garden party guests.  Ironically it is key player Kaleria (Rebecca Liddiard) with her debatably decadent poetry, often recited for friends and family, that acts as the object of discussion among the rivaling writers and philosophizers present.  Not coincidentally, her importance is marked by Gorky himself who does not give her a surname in the play’s list of characters – though we know her to be Sergei’s sister.  It’s not the quality of her poetry that matters so much as she is the catalyst for the playwright’s use of “theatre within theatre.”  If life is art and art represents life, then Kaleria allows us to see how the others – like great poets and artists – are equally faithful truth seekers.  But can poetry and art inspire these folks with a renewed sense of life and cure them of their boredom?  As they come to realize the long way around, truth is not all that tangible: life’s richest moments lie in the space of mystery.  How fitting then the play ends with the line, “It’s all utterly meaningless.”  I am not sure we needed a fourth act to arrive at this conclusion.  It appears that the third act’s picnic with no shortage of alcoholic consumption, enduring tension between love and lust, revealing of infidelity and betrayal, and the critical yearning for vitality could have just as well set the scene for a heated debate and a bittersweet finale.

Sometimes it’s difficult to follow the endeavors and shenanigans of this large nineteen member cast.  While there were many outstanding performances and Gorky’s text is full of poignant lines, I found myself constantly seeking something more: a plot twist, a stand-out speech, a change of rhythm, something.  While the show was beautifully lit and the costumes capture each individual’s personality, the production needed some tightening to keep the audience from drifting away into a world of their own; the job of the actors is to draw us into theirs.  The set changes are long and rickety.  And the accompanying music was often too short.  Throughout the second and fourth acts we can see actors on stage right make their way into the wings, beyond the cottages façade, which should be the imagined interior of Varvara and Sergei’s home.  And, often times, actors move abruptly around the homes façade rather than through its entrance and I was distracted trying to think if this space was simply defined as the outdoors.  And the fact that only a third of the house is used (the back sections marked off by a velvet drape) personally suggests a dismal outlook for the success of the production.  Even as an obvious attempt to make the space slightly more intimate by avoiding excessive audience spread, it does not work as there is clearly still a “fourth wall.”  In fact, even sitting centre, one cannot help but feel even more distant than usual with so much of the action happening upstage, something which is partially alleviated by the chasing of star-crossed lovers throughout the far audience aisles.  My favourite technical aspect of the show is the strange sound of the Watchmen’s Whistle from afar, produced by a flute-like Ocarina, that causes the actors to freeze into a gaze.  It happens several times throughout and allows us a much needed foray into the world of metaphor.  It is in those dream-like moments that the actors seem to contemplate their actions deepest.  They seem less petty and we sympathize easier with their plea towards action.

This play excellently captures the social environment of a precise moment in history, and if we think of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the recent Quebec education protests, it’s exciting to witness its continued significance.  If you are looking for excellent narrative structure and depth of characters, however, one would get much more out of watching a play by Gorky’s contemporary, Chekhov.  What is most captivating, here, is this large portrait of characters whose essence would have been influenced, in addition to the political climate, by the growth in science and technology.  The message voiced by many of these “summer folk” echoes a widespread lack of affection which has led to general tolerance for insensitivity and rudeness.  That seems to ring a bell in the current relationship predicament of many a good friend.  A last message which surfaces is that people “these days” have very quick opinions on everything, except for when it comes to their romantic desires.  But with the current popularity of catalogue / meat market style courtship prompted by online dating technologies, Gorky’s words, this time, may be outdated.

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