Post by Barbara Popel and Brian Carroll
The short play format dates back to the satyr plays of ancient Greece, with a modern resurrection in the “Polaroid playwriting” pioneered in 1977 by the Actors Theater of Louisville. John Koensgen, the Festival’s producer and director, along with playwrights Robert Marinier and actress Mary Ellis, selected the ten plays in the festival by emerging and established Ottawa authors, each of which runs for less time than your morning shower.
Koensgen’s creative team was a strong one. The actors – Eric Craig, Maureen Smith, Brian K. Stewart and Colleen Sutton – rose to the challenge of playing parts that ranged from drama to farce. Projections created by Andrew Alexander were an effective way to introduce each play, and we were impressed by Vanessa Imeson’s wigs and costumes – they were often striking without drawing our attention away from the actors.
This is a “tag team” review, where we both reviewed five of the ten plays in the festival. There was something for everyone but, while there were some real gems, not everything clicked.
Now, on to the plays.
Alice by Karen Balcome
Even ordinary lives have pivotal events. A daughter’s impending marriage. An empty nest. What do the habits of a 25-year marriage mean now? Alice (Smith) gets lost in an unfamiliar landscape. She suddenly questions her place in the world.
Smith plays Alice with skill. From three simple boxes on the stage floor, she evokes a sculpture so tall that we can see that there are no branches low enough for her to climb. She conjures images of the dinner table she shares with her husband and we can see the distance that divides them now that their daughter has left.
But to what purpose is this acting skill applied? The name of the play and its central character call to mind another Alice: Alice Munro. That Alice writes short stories about ordinary lives made extraordinary by a life-changing event. Munro does it in only a few pages that take a similar time to read as this play does to watch.
In Alice, the ordinary life remains ordinary still. Are we really to believe that, with such mid-life distress and self-examination, nothing happens? And why should we care?
Seeing by Laurie Fyffe
Stewart and Sutton play a married couple living in Ottawa. He’s a security analyst recently returned from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder, still working for an unnamed organization – possibly CSIS. She’s obsessively researching her ancestors and doing presentations on geneology at museums. She has recently uncovered evidence of a female ancestor who was institutionalized in a mental institution 120 years ago.
The characters and their conflicts are quite well-developed, once we get past a clumsy introductory scene in which they both talk simultaneously to unseen lecture audiences while we, the theatre audience, struggle to understand who these two people are. Frustrating. This scene is partially redeemed a few minutes later when Stewart has a flashback to a terrible event in Kabul – very powerful stuff. When the two accidently swap briefcases, the initial humour of the situation is succeeded by a tense confrontation.
With help of a dramaturge, this play could move from good to great.
Terminal Journey by Jessica Anderson
Three characters in the security area of the Ottawa Airport are at an impasse. Each is bound by her/his own rules. All are steadfast in their determination to do what’s right, as they see it. None is willing to listen to the others.
What would you do to fulfill someone’s last wishes? Literally what you promised them? Or what you think they’d want? Or what they would have done if they were still here?
There’s the widower, taking his wife’s ashes on one last journey. There’s the security agent, whose job is defined by his protocols. There’s the impatient passenger waiting in line, worried only about delay and a possible lapse in security that might endanger her.
The widower insists that his wife not be passed through any scanners. She made him promise: no more radiation. He’s sticking to his guns. The security agent sticks to his protocols. The other passenger refuses any compromise that breeches her sense of security.
But there’s one more character present. She slowly influences all three. She reinforces their, and our, humanity. And touches our hearts.
Loyal Opposition by Caitlin Corbett
This play features a rather stilted discussion between Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s wife Zoe (Craig) and Laurier’s “special friend”, Madame Lavergne (Sutton). The story is set after WW I just before Laurier’s death. He had broken off relations with Madame Lavergne long before, and now she would like Madame Laurier to deliver a letter to him.
The stories both women tell of their early relationship with Laurier are mildly interesting, the denouement predictable, but the whole thing seems an exercise in genteel history-telling.
The Top Job by Wynn Quon
Have you heard the one about the ape who applied for a job in the government? It sounds like a joke with a snappy punch line. Or a New Yorker cartoon with pithy caption. Or a play in the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd by playwrights like Eugene Ionesco (eg. Rhinoceros). Or this new play.
The ape is applying to be the next Governor of the Bank of Canada. He has hired a placement consultant to prepare for the interview. How they prepare will put a smile on the face of economists, HR staffers, civil servants, consultants, and anyone who’s every played the interview game.
You can view this as allegory, or as just plain fun. Either way, the audience found it hilarious on opening night. Kudos to Stewart for keeping a straight face through all the shenanigans and laughter.
Coach of the Year by Pierre Brault
Stewart is the coach of a pee-wee team (13- to 16-year old boys) who has just won a “coach of the year” award. A young man named Glen (Craig) comes into his hotel room, initially enthusing about the coach’s prowess. This soon morphs into something more sinister. Much more sinister.
The trajectory is predictable, but the script and acting are taut. Chilling.
Denial by Stephanie Turple
Two workers appear in protective gear.
Did something happen? Or not? How do we know? Do we trust our senses? As Bishop Berkeley would tell us, our senses can be fooled. Do we trust our memory? What is the nature of evidence? And in which court: criminal, civil, or the court of popular opinion?
A time of Senate scandals and alleged crack videos should make this play relevant and give it impact. Yet it drew little comment in the after show discussion. It comes across more like an first year Philosophy class or an acting school exercise, despite the considerable acting skills of Sutton and Stewart.
By the way, folks; it’s official. The Toronto Police have found the crack video of Mayor Rob Ford. But that hasn’t stopped the denial.
There’s More to the Picture (Based on a True Death) by Tim Ginley
This play is a post-mortem – almost literally – of the aftermath of the gruesome murder of a 21-year old drug dealer. To add to the grimness of the situation, before this time he’d been crippled by a bullet to the spine during a drug deal gone wrong, so there’s an overturned wheelchair on stage – mute sad evidence.
We meet one of the cops investigating the murder, the dealer’s anguished kid sister, a newspaper reporter, and the ghost of the dealer himself.
The sister wields an iPhone whose video is projected on the screen behind the actors. Lots of info is jammed into the play, but there’s so much going on on stage and on the screen that it’s distracting. Sometimes technology is not the artist’s friend.
However, the inchoate anger of the sister (Smith) at her brother for destroying their family is very real.
The Book of Daniel by Lawrence Aronovitch
This is a coming of age story about a young teenage Jewish boy. Daniel dreams of heroes in his beloved comic books and in the 1976 Olympics that are coming to his home town of Montreal. A smart boy, Daniel is in danger of flunking his trigonometry class. When his rabbi, Rabbi Stern, tries to give him guidance, he tells Daniel that his name means “God is my judge”.
Unfortunately, Aronovitch is parsimonious. There are tantalizing hints, but no details. Stern left Vienna, but was it before WWII? During the War? He landed in Shanghai. (23,000 Jews were restricted during the War to living in the Shanghai ghetto where conditions were grim.) What did he see there? What did he know? Was he a hero? Did God judge Stern? Did God find him wanting?
We don’t know because Aronovitch doesn’t tell us. The most interesting story is the one that got away.
Out of Gas – Keith Davidson
This play was the best – a real gem that George F. Walker would have been proud to call his own.
A pair of none-too-bright losers, Billy and Tammy (Craig and Sutton), have just murdered her mother to get an inheritance. Mother’s corpse is in the trunk of their car. They’ve just run out of gas on the highway. Now the bickering starts…
Craig and Sutton were born to play George F. Walker characters; their delivery had us in stitches all the way through the play. And Davidson’s writing was priceless. We spent the drive home after the festival repeating lines from this play and laughing ourselves silly.
Enter to win a pair of tickets to any screening this weekend by sending an e-mail to email@example.com with Extremely Short in the subject header. Contest closes Friday, November 8 at noon.
The Festival runs until November 10 at Arts Court Theatre, 2 Daly Ave. Information at newtheatreottawa.com Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.