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What happened was…

What Happened Was…

A play by Tom Noonan

Directed by Clayton Jevne

At Theatre Inconnu, ends March 8

Reviewed by Leah Callen

What if you were a fly on the wall during a frictional first date?  Noonan’s play invites the audience to peep into an open window as Jackie tries to bag her co-worker Michael in a sad attempt at romantic connection.  So used to being alone, at first our heroine doesn’t even hear her hero ring the doorbell.  But when Jackie opens the door to Michael, will he ever reciprocate?

The two characters make up stories to colour in the tedium of their actual lives, yet struggle to hear one another over the “mental static” in their own minds. One tries to rekindle a wild past and the other puffs up a non-existent past.  What’s peculiar:  each character seems unworried by the alarming traits that surface in the other. Whether it’s a confession that one hears subliminal voices in a Beatles song or a disturbing preoccupation with baby bones, not a single eyebrow is raised.  Ironically, these unsettling idiosyncrasies are the only charge the pair shares.  Weirdness turns them on.

The delicious icing on this theatrical cake is a nightmarish children’s story that Jackie serves Michael over dinner.  Much like the characters, I found myself hoping here for an entertaining shock, and it did not disappoint.  Though you expect something grotesque to scare off a man, Jackie’s Freudian fright somehow encourages Michael to unpack his own emotional skeletons.

The claustrophobic set itself is strangely menacing, with its palette of roses and ash. Everything is whitewashed and darkening around the edges, and door and window frames feel bare as bones.  When Jackie stands in the kitchen door frame, responding to verbal thrusts from her guest, I couldn’t help but think of a guillotine.

Catriona Black plays a woman who attacks her date with hungry enthusiasm.  The keenness of her character had me flashbacking to an edgy British cartoon I read in my youth, Minnie the Minx.  It feels like Jackie’s wearing a social mask, the one many wear on first dates when they’re trying too hard, and you wait for the moment when it dissolves.  Meanwhile, Michael Romano plays secretive Michael with cool, reptilian calm.  Right from the start, it’s clear these two are mismatched, yet Jackie forces the date forward, half in desperation and half in politeness.  The situation is wonderfully awkward.  Typical to life, the man is arrogant over nothing, and the woman is self-effacing over everything.

I hoped Michael was recording the conversation as he hinted, that he had some malevolent purpose beyond being a passive date. The voyeuristic pleasure of an audience watching an intimate moment feels watered-down when the main fall out is simply some hurt feelings.  Michael’s briefcase became a physical ruse to me, as I kept waiting for some sinister secret to be revealed, but he never opens it.  The real risk in this play is figurative:  people opening up to each other, not knowing whether that truth will be accepted or rejected.

Perhaps that is the dramatic cake underneath the icing: in our cubicled lives, we are so used to talking to ourselves and singing along to pre-written lyrics that we rarely risk being original and reaching out to other people. Romantic heroes and heroines no longer exist.  Most men just want to live safe lives where they’re told what to do, and women are left alone listening to their own echo.

Leah Callen is pursing her MFA in writing, with a drama focus.

Proud: parsing a farce

February 7, 2013

Playwright: Michael Healey

Director: Glynis Leyshon

Belfry Theatre, Victoria

February 4-March 9

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Photo by David Cooper

When I emerged from the Belfry Theatre after seeing actor-playwright Michael Healy’s latest play, Proud, I felt confused. Something was wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

Billed as “political satire” by its distinguished director, Glynis Leyshon, Proud was somehow unsatisfying despite “crackling” dialogue, fast pacing and polished acting by some of Canada’s finest, including Rick Roberts. Roberts, you may recall, played Jack Layton in the CBC biopic. In Proud, he shows his range by playing an unnamed Prime Minister modelled after our current Prime Minister. Now that’s versatility.

Proud proposes an alternative universe in which the Conservatives won Quebec in the last federal election and the Prime Minister has a massive majority including a feisty political neophyte named Jisbella Lyth, played assertively by Celine Stubel.

The Prime Minister, and his Chief of Staff, Cary, played by award winning actor Charlie Gallant, soon learn Jisbella has something in common with them: political amorality. Recognizing a kindred spirit, the PM concludes Jisbella is worth mentoring—and using. Having Jisbella author an anti-abortion (“pro-life”) bill to distract the press so the PM can slip through a change to government unnoticed seems like a fine idea to them all.

What’s the big change the PM wants to slip through on the QT? Muzzling government scientists? Ditching environmental laws? No, the PM wants to reduce the size of the Privy Council Office—a modest goal.

So where is the dramatic conflict in this play? There isn’t any, and, artistically, that’s this play’s main problem.

There are others. A fourth character, Jisbella’s grown-up son, played by UVic Theatre grad Kieran Wilson, talks about political morality from the vantage point of 2029, when the Prime Minister is still in power; but he’s too removed from the principal action of the play to matter. Finally, Proud is a “talky” play. During all the political yak, the Chief-of-Staff makes the point that “politics is fundamentally an emotional event.” Plays are also fundamentally emotional events, and a play that’s too talky can kill emotional response in the audience.

It might be argued that laughter is an emotional response, and it can’t be denied that Proud is humourous. But analyzing its humour reveals its genre confusion.

Although satire, like farce, is usually humourous, unlike farce, satire has a greater purpose: to draw attention to troubling social issues and offer constructive social criticism. Proud doesn’t do that. Since all the principal characters agree that political amorality is just fine, that issue isn’t examined; and since the PM’s goals are so modest and reasonable, no substantive issues are critiqued. Proud confused me because I expected satire; but what it offers isn’t satire: it’s only farce.

So if we can’t be proud of Proud as political satire, what can we be proud of?

We can be proud of Michael Healey for not giving up when Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, fearing a libel suit from the Prime Minister (the real one), nixed his play despite the fact he had been a playwright-in-residence there for more than a decade.

We can be proud that other theatre companies all across Canada from Halifax to Vancouver staged readings of Proud, both to raise money for its independent production and to support the principle of free artistic expression.

And we can be proud that the Canadian public rallied to the cause by contributing almost $18,000 in twenties and hundreds in response to a crowd-funding campaign to pay for its premiere in Toronto.

As a work of art, Proud may disappoint; but the circumstances surrounding its realization are cause for celebration.

Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.