Theatre is alive at host venue Factory Theatre as patrons showed little fear, braving the cold winds at the outdoor ticket booth – huddling closely but with great anticipation of the shows on the inside.
Both shows I viewed my first night at the festival were relatable in that they dealt with relationships and loss, specifically how we come to terms with that loss.
Piece by Piece
The non-linear drama Piece by Piece by Alison Lawrence succeeds most in highlighting the importance of not blaming ourselves but rather finding hope in the aftermath of tragic events. The lives of strangers weave together in a hospital as they share their stories to each other. Steffie (Virgilia Griffith) mourns not only the loss of her mother but the knowledge she made her mom’s last words ones of guilt: “I’m sorry.” Steffie’s simple yet meaningful journey, played by Griffith with great timing and conviction, reveals that her mother, without a doubt, loved her daughter more than anything else in the world. That’s what matters in the end. Steffie’s father Bert (Brian Young) must face his own regrets, having been shut out of his wife’s life long before her illness for having cheated. He spirals into a life of alcoholism. “How can it physically hurt so much to miss someone?” he proclaims. Eventually, he is able to get back up onto his two feet with the help of his sharp daughter. She is what matters most now.
Barb (Linda Goranson) deals with her husband’s Alzheimer’s until his dying day which happens to be accidental: he wraps himself up in a sheet and trips in their bathroom. Goranson makes it rather hard not to sympathize with the character’s bittersweet commitment to her husband as his memory slowly fades; something a lot of us can relate to with aging families. She blames herself despite the fact that this was clearly a long happy marriage brimming with love. Adversity is usually out of our control and should not erase the thousands of wonderful memories surrounding it. Then there is a couple that cannot conceive. John (John Cleland) believes his wife Jessie (Mary Francis Moore) to be losing her mind as their relationship escalates to an explosive declaration of lost dreams. Moore’s dynamic performance is the most compelling of the evening as she subtly moves from seeming indifferent to a climactic depiction of what it’s like for a woman to go through child loss – again and again. Jessie decides to leave her husband behind, recommending in a letter that he view it as a new start. So you kind of wonder if they were just not meant to be.
The choice to have sound bites fading in and out during transitions, most notably emanating from Steffie’s earphones made the flow of the show a little too choppy. And the use of a work light on set used by the actors themselves to stage effects like a flickering television seemed to be out of place: used sporadically and only in the second half of the show.
Less in pieces were DINK’s set and lights (Stephan Droege), with its effective military-themed multi-use risers that functioned as everything from a dinner table to a podium to a (turned upside down) killer’s bath.
In this distinctive play by Caroline Azar, inspired by a real Canadian tragedy, the victims of Bill (David Keeley), a Canadian colonel turned serial killer, aim to avenge their deaths through rock-edged song. “Pretty is disposable. Had I been beautiful, he may have been too afraid to kill me,” states Izzy (Lise Cormier) in of the most agonizing lines of the play. Accompanying her vocally is soldier Danielle (D.T) Bryce (Andrea Brown) whose relationship with Izzy sparks Bill’s rampage. Brown delivers a memorable performance, combatting the many prejudices of her boss and life in a bleak environment, with focus and commitment.
On the outside, her marriage to Bill seems flawless, sanctified even. Deb (Sharon Heldt) believes to have married the perfect man, and does not hesitate to flaunt it to her sister Lolly (Christy Bruce). But double-income no kids (DINK) is not always a guarantee of carefree perfection. As soon as Bill is imprisoned, things naturally unravel at the speed of light. Deb must also deal with the aftermath of her niece Bethany (Jasmine Chen) having been sexually violated by her (ex) husband too. Chen is most charismatic taking over the stage as she perfectly embodies a young girl who likes to dress up as a warrior princess. Eventually Lolly manages to find some room in her heart for her sister to be present again.
Despite well-played, and excellently staged (Azar) and lit characters, the power of the social and political commentary is lost in a rather aimless narrative. The ending seemed to leave us hanging and the audience’s initial pause confirmed I was not the only one unsure what to make of it all.
Where one show succeeds in narrative, the other succeeds in its direction and design. Both shows, none the less, are interesting enough to, perhaps, take higher flight outside of festival parameters. After all, there must always be hope in every dismal situation.
My second outing to the Next Stage Theatre Festival was the most enjoyable, thus far. Amongst some unexhilarating pieces, Mine offers us an authentic examination of the relationship between two women with differing personalities. Playwright Jenna Harris performs alongside Michelle Polak (as Bea and Abigail respectively) bringing to life dialogue that is as witty as it is sexy. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s all upbeat and flawless.
The couple moves through the stages of their relationship from carnal attraction to cohabitation to codependence to fighting. They appear to increasingly dissect each other’s thoughts and actions like any strong couple might do, but with a potentially catastrophic outcome, challenging the opposites attract rule. Bea is a student and blossoming psychologist who likes to hang out at home, and Abigail a daydreaming poet and teaching assistant who loves to party. They love each other but when the fire dies down, they seem to struggle to be as present for each other. As humans, we know our relationships can be wrought with vulnerability, ups and downs. Are we willing to accept the burden anymore these changes can bring on in our modern world where individuals have become so self-reliant? What defines what’s rightfully yours or mine? These, I believe, are great questions to analyze, but these lesbians seem to dance around (often literally) the subject matter far too long without getting anywhere.
Like DINK, it’s often the interesting set (Jenna McCutchen), and effective direction (Clinton Walker) of Mine which upstage the story itself. Stacks of books beautifully create tables and hidden storage. The details are also in the acting choices themselves, like how Polak seductively licks the glass rim of an alcoholic beverage alongside a whole compendium of non-verbal communication, and Harris awkwardly attempts to pick up a dropped item in a café while carrying books by the dozen.
While it is refreshing to see a play where homosexuality is a given and not the problem, what’s lacking here are higher stakes.