Arts

Theatre notes

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Jungle fever

Pith! • Varscona Theatre • May 20-June 5 • preVUE I have an
embarrassing confession to make: I used to think that Stewart Lemoine was,
like, totally overrated. You see, I’m kind of a latecomer to regular
theatregoing, and the first two Teatro la Quindicina productions I ever saw
were Rope and Hedda Gabler, plays I’m fairly sure Lemoine had minimal
involvement with at the script level. My first Lemoine-scripted show was
Ludicrous Pie, a collection of short plays that was fun but still left me
wondering, “Why is everyone so crazy about Stewart Lemoine?”

My question was answered when I saw Pith! at the 1997 Fringe Festival. It
probably isn’t exactly kosher for a theatre critic to drop his guard
this way in a preview, but that performance remains one of my most treasured
theatrical memories of all time. Jeff Haslam played Jack Vail, a roving
adventurer who takes it upon himself to help New England widow Virginia
Trimble (Davina Stewart) bring closure to her grief by taking her on an
action-packed, albeit imaginary trip up the Amazon River, where her husband
disappeared 10 years ago on a silver-mining expedition. It wasn’t just
the play’s fast pace and abundant humour that appealed to me; it was
its unexpectedly moving celebration of the power of imaginary things to cause
dramatic changes in the real world. Pith! truly makes you believe that you
can travel up the Amazon without ever leaving your living room.

My strongest memory of that performance is a lot less lofty, though:
it’s the sight of Leona Brausen (playing Virginia’s faithful maid
Nancy) frantically searching for the gap in the curtains so that she could
make her final exit. “Oh, I am notorious for not being able to get
offstage,” says Brausen in a tone of voice that makes me suspect I
didn’t exactly witness an isolated incident. “Even when they
pinned back the curtains yesterday in rehearsal, I had trouble finding my way
offstage.”

Pith! is Brausen’s second Lemoine revival of the season—a
couple of months ago, she climbed back into her pinafore to play one of the
title character’s slow-witted charges in The Vile Governess and Other
Psychodramas. “It was bizarre how strongly everything came back to my
Swiss cheese brain with The Vile Governess,” Brausen says.
(“Swiss cheese brain”? Could Brausen be a secret Quantum Leap
fan?) “I’ve been trying to figure that out because with this
play, it’s not happening so much. It’s certainly not because I
like it any less. What does happen is that, because we’re doing it in
the same theatre, you find yourself saying a line on one side of the stage
and thinking, ‘Wait a minute—I need to be on the other
side.’ And the feeling is so strong that we wind up having to change it
back—it’s just too creepy otherwise.”

This isn’t the first time Haslam, Stewart and Brausen have restaged
Pith!—in 1999, they restaged it at the Varscona Theatre and at
Calgary’s High Performance Rodeo—but it’s probably the
version with the most ambitious touring prospects. They’re not going
anywhere near the Amazon, but once the Edmonton run is over, the company is
taking the show to the Winnipeg and New York Fringes. “Well, you
know,” laughs Brausen. “If they really like us in Winnipeg,
we’ll feel ready to take New York.”

Gao and forever

Dialogue and Rebuttal • Timms Centre for the Arts • To May 22
• reVUE It will probably help your enjoyment of Dialogue and Rebuttal to
know going into it that it doesn’t really have a plot. The first half
of the play is basically just an extended postcoital conversation between a
man (Jonathan Christenson, making a rare non-Catalyst Theatre stage
appearance) and an attractive younger woman (Beth Graham) who cuddle, argue
and play sadistic games with each other. The second half begins after
they’re dead and watches as they try to adjust to life as bodiless
spirits. But these incidents don’t really build on each other—one
moment, the man is threatening the woman with a knife, the next she’s
chasing him around the bedroom, smacking his bare bottom with a pillow. It
feels more like the author, Nobel Prize-winner Gao Xingjian, is working out a
series of intellectual theorems about sexual relations than developing a
storyline with a dramatic arc.

And you should probably also be aware that the play doesn’t really
contain conventional “characters,” either—we get an
impression of the man as a somewhat amoral sexual predator and we learn a
little about the woman’s past (principally through a bizarre
“when it’s inevitable…” monologue in which she describes
being quasi-raped during a hiking trip through India), but they
register—by design—more as male and female abstractions than as
figures with inner lives and three-dimensional backstories.

As a play with no conventional plot and no conventional characters,
Dialogue and Rebuttal presents some pretty severe impediments to an audience
looking for nothing more than a couple of entertaining hours in the theatre.
What it does have going for it, though, is Patrick Du Wors’s
eye-catching set—a raised stage surrounded on three sides by enormous
lattices of transparent plastic strips upon which director Goesta
Struve-Dencher projects moody, milky images of water and the outlines of
dancing bodies. (The quivering plastic strips make them look like lo-res
1930s television transmissions.) And there’s also the unusually
forceful stage presence of dancer Sonja Myllymaki, playing a Zen monk whose
solemn, solitary exercises comment obliquely on the conversations taking
place elsewhere on the stage between the man and the woman.

The biggest stumbling block for me with this show, though, is the lack of
colourful, poetic language. I’m not sure if that’s the fault of
Gao or the translator, but without plot or characters, I yearned for some
kind of extra stimulation that would sustain me through the script’s
occasional arid patches. And yet, even though it’s an unnecessarily
opaque play that could easily be shortened by about half an hour, it does
boast several moments of remarkable beauty, especially the final tableau,
which may be the most stunning final image I’ve seen in a play since
the ice-skating scene that ended Ronnie Burkett’s Provenance.

I’m not going to pretend that Dialogue and Rebuttal isn’t an
intellectual challenge, but it’s also a play that strives to create a
genuinely emotional response in the viewer, and it refuses to use any
sentimental shortcuts to get there.

All that Az

Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow’s excellent play 3… 2… 1
concludes its run at Azimuth Theatre (11315-106 St) on May 23, and you should
make a point of catching it before then. But even if you show up a day or two
late, you’ll still be entertained, since Azimuth is hosting two theatre
events immediately afterward.

On Monday, May 24, Ribbit Productions is hosting a fundraiser for its
seven-city summer tour of their show Pilk’s Madhouse, a raucous
collection of off-the-wall, polymorphously perverse sketches written by
Toronto madman Henry Pilk, the alter ego of British comic Ken Campbell.
Besides earning a Sterling nomination in 2003 for Outstanding Production by a
Collective, it was one of my favourite shows of last season and is more than
deserving of your support. The pay-what-you-can show gets underway at 8
p.m.

And then, from May 25-29, the Az plays host to It’s Cory Country, a
new comedy by actor/playwrights Sam Varteniuk and Trent Wilkie.
“It’s the story of a kid who doesn’t know what he wants to
do with his life,” Wilkie says.

“Everyone’s trying to get him to do something, and he just
knows he doesn’t want to do what they want him to do. You could call it
a coming-of-age story, but it’s more about
indecisiveness—it’s about someone who’d rather screw around
with their life than make a decision. All he wants to do is his obscure
performance art. A white room with a bucket of cow vulvas, some hamburger
buns and some ketchup—that’s his message to the world.”

It sounds like classic Fringe material, but for Varteniuk and Wilkie,
it’s a point of pride to do the show in May instead of August.
“We wanted to do something that sort of stood out from the
Fringe,” Wilkie says. “Right now, everyone is going, ‘Are
you doing a Fringe show? Are you doing a Fringe show?’ And I wanted to
say, ‘No, but I’m doing this.’ It’s a more honest
test, it seems, of whether people will come and see it.

I’d rather see an honest turnout of people who are really interested
than just a runoff from the Fringe.” V

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