Theatre Review – Tarragon and Volcano Theatres//Hannah Moscovitch’s Infinity

infinity1The plays of Hannah Moscovitch are smart, sassy and sophisticated. Her themes run deep and reflect her keen intelligence. Her strong characters and sharp dialogue can’t help but lure the audience. But here comes the “but”…Moscovitch might be writing about people in crisis, but her plays are medium cool. I admire her artistry but I’m rarely engaged emotionally. She is a playwright for the mind, and it’s important to note that an evening spent with her in the theatre is always stimulating.

Her new play Infinity is a case in point. The central focus is the troubled marriage between theoretical physicist Elliot (Paul Braunstein) and violinist/composer Carmen (Amy Rutherford). Both come from troubled families, and their brilliant mathematician daughter Sarah Jean (Haley McGee) is carrying the tradition of inherited family dysfunction into the next generation. Although the play is filled with sturm und drang, the characters never touch the heart. Rather, our minds are awhirl as we grapple with Moscovitch’s fusion of quantum physics and real life.

Apparently director Ross Manson suggested to Moscovitch the idea of the concept of time and its impact on humanity as a springboard for a play. As Manson writes in his program notes, he was particularly interested in how we cope with time, and being caught inside something so much bigger than ourselves. In fact, Moscovitch worked with noted physicist Lee Smolin in hammering out the imaginary Elliot’s Ph.D. thesis on time. The play might be fiction, but the science in the play is the real thing.

infinity2The acting is superb. McGee proves once again that she is one of the most talented young actors currently treading the boards. As the child Sarah Jean, she is a perfect horror replete with tantrums and whining. Her stunted adult Sarah Jean is disturbingly matter-of-fact in recounting her hopeless relationships with men. Braunstein’s Elliot is masterful in his own domain as a pioneer of quantum physics. As a husband, however, he is a picture of total bewilderment. Elliot just wants to finish his thesis, and can’t understand the demands of his needy wife. Rutherford’s Carmen may be a gifted musician, but her emotional snake pit has turned her into a shrew. The three are trapped in a dysfunctional time continuum – victims of their own making.

An additional key element is the marvellous original music for solo violin composed by Njo Kong Kie and performed with unadulterated passion by Andréa Tyniec. Clearly, part of Manson’s directorial vision is that Tyniec’s outpouring of music represents the inner turmoil of the characters, as well as referencing Carmen’s composing skills. As a wandering player, this very talented musician completes the big picture by being the thoughts unspoken. Dancer Kate Alton is listed as choreographer so one assumes she had a hand in Tyniec’s effective movement and positioning in relation to the actors.

infinity3Manson directs with an eye to the jugular. He never lets extraneous movement get in the way of the dialogue. His characters have something to say and he makes sure that they say it. He is aided by Teresa Przybylski’s striking claustrophobic set of a wrap-around scrim and floor pad bearing parallel lines that resemble both a music staff and a graph of string theories.

In the final analysis, Moscovitch has crafted a fascinating picture of what consulting physicist Smolin calls in his program notes “disordered brilliance”.

(Hannah Moscovitch’s Infinity runs at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace Mar. 25 to May 3.)

 

ARCHIVES – PLAYS THAT OPENED IN JANUARY.2014

(5 Star Rating System)

LondonRoadCanadian Stage. LONDON ROAD (4 ½ stars). Run don’t walk to see one of the most unusual shows in town that is soon to close. The serial killer of five prostitutes in Ipswich, England, had a flat on London Road. Verbatim playwright Alecky Blythe interviewed residents of the street to capture what they went through during the investigation, arrest and trial. These conversations were then set to music by composer Adam Cork. The resulting sung monologues/dialogues are astonishing in their reality. The cast is unbelievable (all kinds of Stratford/Shaw types), gilded by director Jackie Maxwell and her Shaw Festival music director Reza Jacobs. The costumes and the set are terrific. I’m deducting marks for some impenetrable accents. Nonetheless, once again, CanStage scores big with a North American premiere. (Written by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork, directed by Jackie Maxwell, Closes Feb. 9, Bluma Appel Theatre, www.canadianstage.com.)

Tarragon Theatre. FLESH AND OTHER FRAGMENTS OF LOVE (3 stars). Evelyne de la Chenelière is one of Quebec’s foremost playwrights, but she falters on this latest offering. The play is inspired by a novel by French writer Marie Cardinal, and dabbles in magic realism. A troubled French couple (Blair Williams and Maria del Mar) is on vacation in a remote part of Ireland, when the husband finds a dead body washed ashore on the beach. The corpse is Mary (Nicole Underhay), a medical student and single mother. Pierre and Simone begin to make up a back story for Mary influenced by their own negative experiences, while Mary herself speaks about her own life and that of Pierre and Simone. Karyn McCallum’s set and costumes are arresting, but the text itself runs out of steam. Richard Rose’s direction seems a tad on the slow side. (Written by Evelyne de la Chenelière, directed by Richard Rose, Tarragon Theatre, Jan. 7 to Feb. 16, 2014, www.tarragontheatre.com.)

Soulpepper. IDIOT’S DELIGHT (2 ½ stars). This is another one of Soulpepper’s irritating productions – good intentions that fizzle out. The very successful play, written in 1936, by Robert Sherwood, actually anticipated World War 2, and which side various countries would end up on. Sherwood also adapted his play for the MGM all-star movie featuring Clark Gable and Norma Schearer, directed by Clarence Brown. Director Albert Schultz’s version doesn’t come even close. The Soulpepper production is beset by uneven acting and insipid direction. More to the point, Raquel Duffy, in the key role of Irene cannot be heard. Doesn’t anyone at Soulpepper actually do a voice check in the theatre? Some like Dan Chameroy, and particularly Evan Buliung, rise above the fray, but there is no sense of an ensemble. The play is one where a group of people end up being marooned together (in this case, an alpine resort on the northern Italian border), and collisions of ideas happen. The recipe is here for intense interaction, but this whole production is paint by numbers. And then there is Lorenzo Savoini’s set that looks like a giant tiled washroom. Soulpepper gets a plus mark for putting this rarity on the stage, but not for the production. (Written by Robert E. Sherwood, directed by Albert Schultz, Jan. 30 to Mar. 1, 2014, www.soulpepper.ca.)

Tarragon/Theatre Smash. THE UGLY ONE (4 stars). This revival from 2011 retains the original cast and creative team, all to good advantage. German playwright Marius von Mayenburg has written a fable that deals with important issues like image, identity and perception. The plot begins with an inventor who works for a large corporation. His boss will not let him present his discovery at a convention because he’s too ugly. And so begins von Mayenburg’s twists and turns which also take on the whole obsession with plastic surgery. The acting is superb, while Ashlie Corcoran directs with both passion and humour. The play is short, sweet, and packs a wallop. (Written by Marius von Mayenburg, directed by Ashlie Corcoran, Jan. 7 to Feb. 16, 2014, www.tarragontheatre.com.

Nightwood Theatre. FREE OUTGOING (3 ½ stars). The over the top melodrama of Bollywood movies carries over into this play whose premise is that a teenage girl’s sexual encounter ends up on youtube. Indian writer Anupama Chandrasekher has set the play in the conservative city of Chennai (where she is based), and the action is relentless as the fallout spirals out of control. From the neighbours who want the family kicked out of the apartment building, to the hungry media and their feeding frenzy, the consequences are extreme for everyone involved. Anusree Roy as the mother gives another of her sterling performances. (Written by Anupama Chandrasekhar, directed by Kelly Thornton, Factory Theatre, Jan. 28 to Feb. 16, 2014, www.nightwoodtheatre.net.)

Theatre Review – Two Rooms (Théâtre Français de Toronto) and This is War (Tarragon)

It just so happens that I saw two plays in a row that use the structural device of monologues, so they make an interesting joint review.

Two Rooms by Mansel Robinson, (in a French translation by acclaimed Quebecois playwright Jean Marc Dalpé), focuses on the murder of a Moslem wife by her “white” cop (read Canadian) husband. By extension, it is also about the great racial/religious divide. Hannah Moscovitch writes political theatre. Her This Is War is a close look at the stresses placed on Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, particularly the night before a joint operation with the Afghan army that goes sour.

Now these synopses are woefully inadequate in terms of content, but my main concern is the use of monologues. In Two Rooms, the two-hander is made up of monologues by the wife (Elkahna Talbi) and the husband (Dalpé), although they do intersect briefly. Moscovitch cuts to scenes after her four soldiers (Lisa Berry, Sergio Di Zio, Ian Lake and John Cleland) have spoken.

The two plays share another element – the audience knows the ending from the onset, but not the why and the wherefore. Thus, a good playwright has the knack of revealing facts through conversation. A weak playwright tells us everything up front and nothing is discovered, as it were. Clearly, the audience has expectations. Why did the Moslem wife have to die? What happened at the joint operation and the night before? What the playwrights are hoping for is that their revelations are of sufficient interest to keep the audience’s attention – and, more to the point, that the subsequent unfolding of events is equal to the outcome that the audience knows in advance – and in this, they both succeed. Robinson and Moscovitch are able to build the case for their endings (beginnings). In neither play is the audience left thinking that the end was less than the means.

Then there are the unseen listeners/askers of questions. The monologues in these plays are not mere self-ruminations. For example, in Two Rooms, we know right from the start that the policeman is in a police interrogation room. We also find out early on that the wife has had an affair. She is presumably at a psychiatrist’s office, using her storytelling to build up courage to confront her husband with the truth about her relationship. In This Is War, it is probably a reporter, or perhaps a member of an inquiry board who is the listener. We know that there has been a traumatic joint op experience with the Afghan army. The questions the soldiers are asked also deal with what happened the night before. In this way, the playwrights reel in the audience, playing the line a bit at a time, tickling the fish. We become those unseen questioners with, in the case of an accomplished playwright, a strong need to know.

Robinson is very clever. As the policeman details his rising paranoia that his wife is a terrorist, she grows in strength as she marches her way to the truth. Moscovitch, at first, has her soldiers lie, or withhold information, but she also uses the device of repeated scenes. Each time we see the repeat, she includes more information. Bits of monologues also repeat. By the end we are left with the clear knowledge of the terrible stress syndrome that motivated the soldiers in their actions during that fateful and disastrous joint operation. Along the way, Moscovitch also slips in details about what life is like for a soldier in these dismal desert encampments.

Dalpé and Talbi give wonderfully nuanced performances. His character has been blessed with delicious lines of dark, ironic humour, in comparison to his wife’s intense, humourless self-evaluation. It’s a good contrast. Moscovitch’s play is fraught with tension. There is the hardened, womanizing sergeant (Cleland), the idealistic young recruit (Lake), and the troubled female corporal (Berry) who is the object of their desire. (This play could be a good case for why women shouldn’t be serving in the front line!) Di Zio is the gay medic who tries to keep the esprit de corps together. They are all coiled springs and the angst is palpable.

A special commendation should be made for Cleland. He was replacing the injured Ari Cohen, but he was so into character that one forgot that he was on script. Kudos to directors Geneviève Pineault (Two Rooms) and Richard Rose (This Is War) for crafting productions that highlight both words and character. Norman Thériault’s evocative set for Two Rooms is a cage, a suitable metaphor for the play, When it comes to Dora Award time, Camellia Koo deserves a nomination for her sensational design for This Is War that literally cocoons the audience in camouflage netting.

In the final analysis, monologues have been around since Greek theatre, and certainly brought to brilliance in Shakespeare. In the capable hands of playwrights assured of their craft, they remain a tried and true literary device.

Two Rooms by Mansel Robinson, translated by Jean Marc Dalpé, (staring Elkahna Talbi and Dalpé, directed by Geneviève Pineault), Théâtre Français de Toronto, Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, Jan. 30 to Feb. 3, 2013

This Is War by Hannah Moscovitch, (starring Lisa Berry, John Cleland, Sergio Di Zio and Ian Lake, directed by Richard Rose), Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, Dec. 28 to Feb. 3, 2013

Theatre Review – Ravi and Asha Jain’s A Brimful of Asha

A Brimful of Asha at the Tarragon Extra Space is a runaway hit. The added performances keep selling out, and for good reason. We all have mothers. Most of us come from immigrant parents. Put the two together and you have the perfect storm of a generational culture clash.

Ravi Jain’s Why Not Theatre never repeats itself. Each show is very different, one from the other. A Brimful of Asha is basically a conversation between Jain and his real life mother, Asha (who has never acted before). What’s so delicious about the show is that the audience has no idea just how much is scripted, and how much is improvised.

The topic of discussion is Ravi getting married. Apparently, as soon as children finish their education, they are supposed to get married, according to Indian tradition. Ravi did not do that, and this reflects badly on his parents in the view of their Indian relatives and friends. They must be bad parents because Ravi isn’t married. Not only that, he’s in theatre – not exactly the proper vocation for an Indian son who should be taking over his father’s business, or better still, graduating as a lawyer or doctor.

The opening of the play has a real buzz. Ravi and Asha greet the audience as they come in, serving samosas and other goodies to the hungry. (I had a samosa, presumably cooked by Asha, and it was delicious.) Thus, right from the get go, everyone is cocooned in friendship. At the end, Ravi and Asha say individual goodbyes, and the audience forms a reception line.

In between, we hear the story of the trip to India that inspired the play. Ravi was invited to give a theatre workshop in Calcutta, and he and his friend Andrew took this opportunity to extend the trip and backpack around India. Ravi’s parents also took the opportunity to come to India and introduce Ravi to some suitable girls.

As each tells part of the story, disputes develop. Asha sees things one way, and Ravi the other. Each one is trying to win the audience over to his/her side. The dialogue is genuinely funny. Asha is particularly adept at an ironic delivery of one-liners that zaps Ravi into silence or anger. She had the crowd howling with laughter. For his part, Ravi is a charismatic actor. There is also clever use of two flat screen TVs that show family photos and other suitable material.

Underneath the laughter, there is a very serious subject at play – the honour of the family and the well-being of a child. Asha’s story of her own arranged marriage is very poignant – engaged by the third day and married within a few weeks, then coming to Canada where she knew no one.  We hear about the dream she had to give up – of running a school for orphans. The title of the play, incidentally, comes from a song by the British alt rock band Cornershop.

The theatre is infused with warmth because there is such a strong connection between actors and audience. The laughter is of the shared good-natured kind. Asha and Ravi radiate vitality. You leave the show with a smile on your face. Yet, despite the fact that A Brimful of Asha is a delightful theatre outing, one does do some serious thinking after the show. Does the western falling in love mandate lead to better marriages? Not bloody likely when you look at the divorce rate.

I remember when I was in India, and our local guides talked about their own arranged marriages, and the Saturday papers that had all the bio datas on prospective brides and grooms. (Unbeknownst to Ravi, his father put his data bio in an Indian newspaper, and the family got 150 responses.)

Ravi is now 32. Will he ever get married and make his parents happy? Maybe that happens in the sequel.

A Brimful of Asha, written and performed by Asha and Ravi Jain, directed by Ravi Jain, Tarragon Extra Space, Jan. 26 to Feb. 26.