"Think of something that makes you happy. Think happy thoughts."
So goes the mantra of Margaret (Barbara Gordon), the widow and matriarch of a small, dysfunctional family.
Unable to confront, cope or even intervene in any issue that resembles negative, Margaret chooses to live in her own cheery reality, free from awkward unpleasantries, and, as you'd expect, any semblance of real-life.
We've all met people like Margaret - individuals who are so uniformly high-spirited that it goes beyond the spread of good karma to sheer annoyance and pity. I see these people and think "How do they get through life?!" And therein lies the rub.
As the play unfolds we learn that the cheerful sins of the mother are visited upon the children. Christian (Martin Happer) has taken on the deluded avoidance tactics of his mother, to his detriment, and Cassie (Maev Beaty), unable to honestly communicate with her family, acts out in sexually explicit and sometimes cruel ways in order to shock and be noticed.
All of these family values are played out around the strife of Christian's fragile wife Stasia's pregnancy. Stasia (Ingrid Rae Doucet) is obsessively convinced there is something wrong with her unborn child, and goes so far with her belief that she refuses to see the baby when it's born and is instead, checked into the pysch ward of the hospital.
Naturally, all of these scenarios are played down, ignored or glossed over by Margaret and the only truthful insight we're given into the entire familial mess is from BellaDonna, the gossipy neighbour, with a caring heart (an excellent Maria Vacratsis).
Cullis' play has some real depth to it; she asks the question as to whether happiness and honesty can indeed co-exist, and also effectively demonstrates how powerful a tool the human mind can be in manufacturing truths and in convincing one's self that these truths are reality and always have been.
I wish that the play had stuck to these ideas. They are simple, authentic, widely understood and relevant.
Instead the play was bogged down with other ideas, ones I felt were placed on the play rather than coming from somewhere within it.
The term "gratuitous technique" was offered to me by a friend and I think it's the most apt description of what happened. The characters would deliver dialogue straight to the audience, then suddenly turn to each other and talk, or they would be having what appeared to be a monologue, indoors, but another character who is outdoors, would comment on their words. There was no context or uniformity of space.
Then there was useless movement - oddly timed standing or moving from point A to point B with no seen/heard motivation to do so, and there were distinct lighting techniques that seemed extraneous to the story and were distracting.
I felt like it was a contest in directorial techniques and Kelly Thorton wanted to see how many she could include in one play and none of them seemed to enhance the story.
Following THE PENELOPIAD, a play where the direction was paramount to the effectiveness of the storytelling and a challenge that Thorton rose to with appropriate panache, it seems bizarre to me that the direction of her next play could seem so heavy-handed here.
I guess you can't win 'em all. But don't tell Margaret.
THE HAPPY WOMAN is on until March 24 at the Berkeley St. Theatre (26 Berkeley St). For tickets click here or call: 416-368-3110.
Without realizing it, I had already decided that a lot of the theatre I was seeing was predictable. This doesn't mean that I was disapointed in what I was watching, just that I was conditioned to expect the expected. I had subconsiously created a status-quo that I didn't know was there and I was, admittedly, happy with.
But back the truck up. Mirvish's THE BLUE DRAGON and Nightwood Theatre's THE PENELOPIAD shook things up this week with their dynamo, non-predictable productions, and provided innovative, exciting works not commonly seen in the Toronto landscape.
THE PENELOPIAD by Margaret Atwood is a response to Homer's The Odyssey and tells the story of Penelope (Megan Follows) through the 20 year absence of her husband Odysses who is fighting the Trojan War. Left to raise their son and fend off hundrends of suitors, Penelope enlists the help of 12 maids in a scheme to protect her. Upon his return, Odysses ruthlessly hangs the maids and Penelope is an acessory to murder.
If this synopsis of a reimagined, ancient Greek tale with a feminist twist, doesn't peak your curiousity, I get it. But take that story and tell it with the hilariously dry wit of Margaret Atwood, add in a slew of REALLY fantastic female actors, led by the incomporable Megan Follows, include some inspired choreography by the talented Monica Dottor, and some off-the-hook directing by Nightwood's Artistic Director, Kelly Thornton, and you've got yourself a visual spectacle that even Aristotle would be proud of. The show redefined both creativity and what a theatrical production is capable of.
No, that is not an exaggeration.
The multi-faceted set, costumes, props and actors were maniuplated in so many ways that it was hard to envision what else they could do , yet it was never a surprise when they were reimagined again and again.
Part of my enjoyment of the show was that I was constantly surprised by it's ingenuity so I don't want to give much away. Just go. The likes of this won't be seen again with such a perfect storm of talent.
Nightwood has, yet again, commanded attention to the female voice through theatre in a bold, beautiful, loud and distinctly female way. And I love it.
Mirvish also opened THE BLUE DRAGON this week. The sequel to Robert LePage's THE DRAGONS' TRILOGY, originally written in the 80's. This play takes place 50 years after the original play, with the protagonist, Pierre, living in Shanghai, having a mid-life crisis and dating a new, trendy visual artist half his age. When his old friend Claire comes to visit en route to adopt a baby, their interactions and confrontations open unexpected doors to the future for all of them.
Again, if this story doesn't get you excited, it's to be expected. It didn't do much for me either.
But in typical Lepage fashion, he took this plot and created a visual extravaganza on stage akin only to other Lepage shows.
I always feel like Robert Lepage knows what a stage is capable of better than anyone else. I feel like he's got secrets about what can be done that others don't, and he pulls out his bag of tricks in ways that seem so natural that I can't believe no one had ever done it before. But no one has.
His use of projections, his all-encompassing set-designs and his use of props are so seamlessly woven into the drama of the story, it's hard to imagine the play without them and it's impossible to imagine the play done any other way. And who would want to; it's all so perfect already that anything less would be tantamount to sacrilege.
It may seem like I'm laying it on a bit thick., but I"m not. Even those who have dismissed theatre as irrelevent still get excited about a show by Robert Lepage, and THE BLUE DRAGON is a perfect example as to why. It proves, once again, that there's nothing quite like a Lepage anywhere else.
Do yourself a favour; spend the money and see these 2 shows. If you don't see anything else in 2012
I can almost excuse that. These are a great start to the year and excellent additions to your theatrical repertoire of memories. You will not see shows like this again for a very, very long time. Maybe ever.
THE PENELOPIAD is now on stage at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander St.), until Jan. 29. For tix, call 416-975-8555 or click here.
THE BLUE DRAGON is now on stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King St. W.), until Feb. 9
For tix, call 416-872-1212 or click here.