Over the course of 85 minutes (including one intermission) we follow a cast of five characters though a cascade of profanity, questionable ethics, infidelity, violence — even self-mutilation.
The Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) is ending its 2013-14 season with the world premiere of The Burden of Self Awareness, a dark comedy written by Canadian playwright George F. Walker.
You can feel an excited energy in the theatre as ticket holders take their seats before the show. Some have been waiting a year for this moment, notably since the GCTC first announced the play was coming to Ottawa last July.
Advertisements (and the programs in our hands) indicate that the play contains mature subject matter, sexual content, and strong language — all of which are true.
Few scenes — if any — escape the strings of sex, money and desire.
As an example, the first, short scene concludes with a psychiatrist’s patient, Judy, as she slips her undergarment down and hikes up her dress, mere seconds after her husband has left the room.
“Just fucking do it,” she yells to her aging psychiatrist, mounting him while he remains seated in a red leather chair.
The scene abruptly concludes with the lights of the theatre dimming to near darkness and a generous roar of laughter springs forth from the audience.
It’s an older crowd on this particular Thursday evening and the mirth feels oddly reassuring. As my eyes adjust to the lighting; however, silhouettes from all around can be seen quickly adjusting in their seats, as if bracing themselves before what comes next.
What follows is a brief summary and review with no spoilers:
We learn details about a recent near-death experience that prompts Judy’s husband, Michael, to re-evaluate his life. Notably this occurs due to a character who we actually never see on stage yet profoundly affects Michael, a billionaire, who becomes intent on giving away much of his wealth despite his wife’s opposition:
“I can’t be poor,” Judy says to her husband.
“Can you be middle class?” he asks her.
“What is the difference?” she replies.
“Well, not much anymore. I’ll give you that,” he acknowledges.
It’s slivers of dialogue like this that hint to deeper underlying messages throughout the play, leading us along like breadcrumbs.
In an interview with the playwright a week before the debut, George F. Walker hints that this show touches on a few questions without answers:
“Can you ever have enough money?” he asks, rhetorically, explaining that the dialogue for this particular play was inspired by a conversation he and his wife had about wealth and disparity in the world.
GCTC’s artistic director, Eric Coates, plays the role of Michael. Whether intentionally or not, his portrayal comes across as fairly rigid and stale but permits a comparatively electrifying performance by Sarah McVie, cast as his wife Judy.
The interplay between these two characters is most intriguing because they are desperate for the same things in life: safety, stability and a life without fear. Yet Michael has come to believe this is achieved through liquidating wealth and sharing his money while Judy is desperate to hoard it as a “buffer.”
“I want what I need to feel safe. No matter what happens,” says Judy, intent to stop her husband from giving away tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars.
We watch as Michael and his wife seek the professional advice of a psychiatrist, Stan(ley), who brings his own demented dimension to the show.
Paul Rainville, who plays the role of Stan, provides an exceptional, enduring performance as we helplessly watch his character slowly disintegrate in a chaotic, spectacular manner.
“Falling in love and screwing are two very different things.
Well, professionally,” says Stan, the less-than-ethical psychiatrist who sometimes sleeps with his patient(s).
The underlying messages of the play continue as we later meet Lianne, a call girl, who happens to have a degree in history.
“Trust me, [the history degree], it’s absolutely nothing,” says Lianne, a prostitute, as she reluctantly discloses her academic credentials and casts doubt on the utility of her undergraduate degree.
Five cast members hold the show together well, including Phil, a private investigator who has his work cut out for him by everyone, including…Jesus.
In some ways, The Burden of Self Awareness feels like the stage version of a do-it-yourself murder mystery dinner, perhaps most of all because I feel like it could have been performed anywhere.
The stage and props are simple.
The storyline and cast are easy to follow.
There is nothing distinctly Canadian about it.
What makes this performance stand out is the manner in which it bleeds laughter from the audience. The dark humour isn’t dull. It pricks the audience gently and at times, harshly. And it’s the particular use of dark humour that makes us feel like reluctant blood donors.
A sense of safety in the darkness of the GCTC contributes to the overall effect, allowing us to laugh not only at the play’s content but also at each other and ourselves.
As we inch towards the finality of death through a rapid succession of scenes, the audience witnesses suicide and murder but not to whom you might expect. In the end, I’m left wondering what happens next for the remaining characters.
The lack of an obvious conclusion may be a burden for some but there’s a lingering desire to see what comes after self-awareness.
The Burden of Self Awareness runs until June 22 at The Great Canadian Theatre Company (1233 Wellington Street West). For tickets (starting at $30) and showtimes, click here. Stay tuned for Apt613’s interviews with the playwright, director, and artistic director coming later this week.