If We Are Women|
by Joanna M. Glass,
Flowers & No More Medea
by Deborah Porter,
by Jim Millan,
Hope Slide/Little Sister
by Joan MacLeod,
by George F. Walker,
Whale Riding Weather
by Bryden MacDonald,
A Play by Pamela Boyd
by Pamela Boyd,
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|Brief Reviews - Theatre
by David Prosser
IN A STAGE DIRECTION HERALDING the entrance of Hesione Hushabye in Heartbreak House, Bernard Shaw specified that the character should have "eyes like the fishpools of Heshbon." I admit that it has momentarily escaped my recall what exactly the fishpools of Heshbon are, or were, or what it was about them that the actress playing Hesione should strive to suggest; but I can at least imagine the kind of eyes Shaw had in mind: limpid and cool, with a hint of mysterious depths. No such insight presented itself when, perusing the script of Bryden MacDonald's Whale Riding Weather (Talonbooks, 128 pages, $12.95 paper), I came upon this description of the character Lyle:
he has sparkling
watery mischievously youthful
possibly borrowed eyes
Come again? Possibly borrowed eyes? I'm afraid I don't quite .... Well, never mind, on we go. In the play, Lyle, a pathetic old queen, loses his companion, Auto, to a yummy young pick-up named Jude. "Will it hurt when you take him away from me?" Lyle asks Jude. "No," says Jude. And then the whales come and batter down the walls of Lyle's apartment as he sits there drinking sherry in his beautiful blue shirt ....
I'm sorry. I realize a lot of people have liked Whale Riding Weather, and it's quite possible that I would too if I encountered it in the theatre. But our concern here is with the printed text, and this one rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe I'm suffering from a surfeit of surrealism, or maybe it's just that the idea of printing stage directions as if they were free verse strikes me as deeply pretentious. And what is it with this currently fashionable contempt for marks of punctuation? I know, I know, I've been on this soapbox before; but really, why should someone reading a play have to stumble over seemingly random heaps of words while someone seeing and hearing it in the theatre has the markers of rhythm and intonation to point the way? A few commas and a dash or two, believe it or not, would turn a speech like
And what Auto
automatic autopilot autograph
is that supposed to mean?
into a syntactically, if not logically, comprehensible utterance. So why not just use them?
Oddities of character rather than of typography characterize Pamela Boyd's Odd Fish (Red Deer College Press, 96 pages, $9.95 paper). Jana, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, runs a marina with her Canadian husband, Ted. They have a son who calls himself Bear, a gifted daughter who affects a punk hairdo, and an impossibly camp Anglo-Irish neighbour. One day, Jana's ex-lover from 20 years ago turns up at the door, announces to the stunned family that their wife, mother, and stuffer of Thanksgiving turkeys was once one of Czechoslovakia's most controversial young sculptors,
and whisks her off to an Ottawa art gallery and to bed. "He is not afraid of me, my blackness or my brilliance," Jana explains to Ted later. "I had forgotten what it was like to be awake in my mind and in my imagination."
"I don't know for sure," says poor old Ted, who you can tell is out of his depth here, "but it sounds like you want someone different, not me." It must be hard for Ted -- a research chemist before he decided to run a marina -- to understand the effects on the artistic soul of 20 years in a place like Canada. "There is no understanding here," Jana complains to her old flame, "no love. no dignity. In Canada, art is considered unnecessary." Ain't it the truth?
A compendium edition of selected works by George F. Walker might not be a necessity, exactly, but it is certainly welcome. Shared Anxiety (Coach House, 503 pages, $24.95 paper) contains eight of Walker's plays, including the previously unpublished Theatre of the Film Noir and Tough!, and rewritten versions of Criminals in Love, Better Living, and Escape from Happiness. It also features a preface by Robert Wallace, an introduction by Stephen Haff, a chronology of Walker's career and a list of his works, a bibliography of criticism and, to ensure that only sincere devotees of Canadian theatre might attempt to purchase it, a cover of such spectacular ugliness that I dared look only at its reflection in the polished gold of my pen nib. It's not art that's considered unnecessary in Canada, just art direction.
Literary villains, from Walker's Zastrozzi to Ian Fleming's Ernst Stavro Blofeld, often justify themselves by placing their own interests at the centre of an alternative moral order founded on plausiblesounding half-truths. The Vietnamese-born Charles Sobhraj, now in prison in India, was a serial murderer of tourists in southeast Asia during the 1970s; in Serpent Kills (Playwrights Canada, 115 pages, $11.95 paper), Jim Millan and Blake Brooker install Sobhraj in the pantheon of sanguinary sophists. "As there are many names for love," he says, "there are many names for crime. One of them is development, another progress." One or two coy allusions to Heart of Darkness are slipped in among the references to the James Bond films, but in the end there's no great insight here into the nature of evil; just a scarily convincing portrayal of how attractive it can be to the hungry and the naive.
"For many of my friends," says Irene Dickson, the principal character in Joan MacLeod's one-woman show The Hope Slide (Coach House, 118 pages, $14.95 paper), "hope has become a threatened species." Irene is an actress, touring British Columbia with a one-woman show about the Doukhobors. Her friends are her colleagues in the theatre, so no prizes for guessing what the threat consists of. Among those who have recently succumbed to the virus is Irene's friend Walter, whose fate she likens to those of two "martyred" Doukhobors (one blown up by his own bomb, another starved in a prison hunger strike) and of a third, a young woman killed in her car when the side of a mountain sheared off in a landslide near the town of Hope, B.C., in 1965.
If there's a flaw in this metaphor (and surely the idea of dying as a consequence of making love to someone has a significantly different emotional resonance from that of so rare and random a misfortune as having a mountain fall I on you), it's not a fatal one, for MacLeod's theme is larger than just the awfulness of AIDS. We see Irene in two times: as the middle-aged actress she is now, and as the passionately, obsessively idealistic 15-year-old rebel she once was. It is in MacLeod's subtly and sensitively crafted juxtaposition of these two Irenes that the real heart of the play lies. No human life is immune to the threat that experience poses to hope, and few readers could fail to be moved by Irene's determined, unsentimental reaffirmation at the end.
In the same volume is a little treasure called Little Sister, in which three teenage girls and two boys wrestle with affairs of the heart and disorders of the appetite. The dialogue is utterly convincing, with no trace of condescension towards the characters. A terrific script for high-school production, and by no means unsuitable for older audiences.
The first of the two pieces in Flowers & No More Medea (Playwrights Canada, 119 pages, $11.95 paper), by Deborah Porter, is a portrait of the troubled lives led by five sisters, quintuplets, born to a French-Canadian family in the 1930s. Flowers is not docudrama, though: the real-life case of the Dionne quintuplets is no more than a historical precedent for this poignant and impressively theatrical celebration of the human soul. The five actresses who play the sisters also play all the other roles, reminding us of how each human life is at once indivisible and part of a community, of how we find our identities not only in ourselves but in our relationships with others. The central image here is a string of paper dolls, which one of the sisters cuts out from a folded sheet of paper. When she folds the dolls up into one and places the single figure on her mother's death bed, the simple gesture has an eloquence that no words could achieve.
In No More Medea, the legendary child murderer and the Virgin Mary find themselves facing eternity in a sort of limbo known as the Place of Battered Legends. Forming an uneasy friendship, the two descend to North America, do some shopping, take in a few movies, and resolve to stop letting men use them as icons of good and evil. A breezy, cheeky piece, with the flavour of a revue sketch rather than a play. Much would depend on the comedic talents of its performers.
The recent death of one woman's lover and the imminent arrival of another's are the two poles between which flow the emotional currents of Joanna McClelland Glass's If We Are Women (Playwrights Canada, 102 pages, $11.95 paper). Jessica's partner for the past eight years has just died, leaving behind two unaccounted for theatre ticket stubs in the pocket of his coat and a resultant pang of suspicion in Jessica's heart. Meanwhile, Jessica's teenage daughter announces the loss of her virginity and her intention to forsake Yale for life on a farm with her biker boyfriend. There is no other action: the play's movement consists of the unrolling of an intricate tapestry, stretching over three generations, of recollections and longings, resentments and regrets.
"It's a painful business, thinking back through our mothers," says Rachel, Jessica's former mother-in-law. "Because they give us, quite literally, their blood." But for the reader, lacking that tie of blood, tedium may be more of a problem than pain. Poring over the dried stains of their pasts and trying to discern in them the shape of their futures, Glass's characters ultimately demand more of our interest than their preoccupation with their own histories has earned. Like outsiders at a family reunion, we may detect the pulse of history, of epic even, in the stories being told around the table. But we cannot quite feel it in our hearts, for the blood is not our own.