Monday, September 24, 2007

HOMECHILD by Joan MacLeod

Photo: John Krich as Alistair []

1. What can you tell us about the playwright Joan MacLeod and her previous plays?

Joan MacLeod is one of Canada's most well-known playwrights whose plays have won numerous awards, including the 1988 Prix Italia for the CBC production of her one-woman play Jewel, the Governor General’s Award for Amigo’s Blue Guitar in 1991, and the Chalmer's Award for The Hope Slide. Her plays have been produced across Canada, and in England, the United States and Europe, and translated into eight languages. Although born, raised and schooled on the west coast, MacLeod spent a number of years in Toronto where she premiered her first plays at the Tarragon Theatre. She moved back to BC in 1992 and is now a professor of creative writing at the University of Victoria.

2. Why do you think she might have chosen the subject of Canada's home children for this new play?

MacLeod's plays are always socio-political at some level, although never overtly so. Instead, her interest is in examining how larger social or political issues and events play out in the lives of ordinary people. So in her play Shape of a Girl, we see a young girl who is affected by news stories of the Reena Virk killing here in Victoria, and this provokes her to do something about a bullying problem in her own life. In Amigo's Blue Guitar (staged by UVic's Phoenix Theatre a few years back), a Salt Spring Island family takes in a Salvadorean refugee and learn more than they want to about the realities of this young man's life. In this new play, MacLeod pushes us to deal with the relatively unknown story of up to 100,000 children who were forcibly emigrated to Canada from orphanages and poor families in Scotland and England from the 1870s to the 1930s. These children were often separated from their siblings and put to work as indentured farm labourers across the country. In Homechild, we see how the legacy of Dr. Thomas Barnardo and his Barnardo Homes has affected the life of one home child, Alistair McEachern, now in his late 70s or early 80s, and the members of his family.

3. What did you feel were the strengths of this production?

This production features a lovely set design by Pam Johnson that offers us something akin to a museum diorama exhibit of a typical Eastern Ontario rural farm, where the fields outside blend impressionistically into the porch and dining room of the home itself. I loved how the sky backdrop features a number of doors that the characters enter through. With a large cast of 8 the set can feel a bit cramped for space at times, though. Director Roy Surette (who is sadly leaving the Belfry for Montreal's Centaur Theatre this season) gives us another one of his fine shows, and has cast local actor John Krich as Alistair, whose performance is at the centre of the production. Krich offers a moving yet unsentimental portrait of a man who has bottled up the truth of his past for many decades. Alistair is not a very likable man, yet somehow Krich allows us to feel for him, and when he finally reveals the secrets he has hidden for so long, in the last few minutes of the play, we share both his deep grief and his tentative joy...a very fine performance. The supporting work in the show is also very even, with solid work from Terry Tweed as Alistair's live-in sister-in-law and fussbudget Aunt Flora, Jillian Fargey as Alistair's estranged daughter Lorna, Craig March as her low-achieving brother Ewan and Andrew Wheeeler as old friend and neighbour Wesley. Belfry regulars will also enjoy seeing a couple of other favorite actors returning to its stage; Margaret Martin as neighbour and home child Dorrie and Donna White as Alistair's sister in the present, in a very quiet and focused performance. I was especially impressed by the work of Jennifer Paterson as the young Katie, the embodiment of Alistair's memory of his long-lost sister. It is very difficult for an adult actor to play a young child convincingly and I felt that Paterson was note-perfect, both physically and verbally, throughout.

4. How did you feel about the weaving of past and present in the play?

It's interesting that this was an aspect that some Toronto critics didn't much like in the first production, yet here I felt it was one of the most effective elements in the play. Whenever the young Katie entered, I held on to my Kleenex, because her story of abandonment and her endless waiting to be reunited with her much-loved older brother Alistair (who she calls Jackie) is so terribly moving; all the more so because we realize that this young girl's experience was shared in real life by so many tens of thousands of children...a national tragedy, really. And the scenes when Alistair encounters Katie in his memories and recreates scenes from their childhood, are almost too much to bear.

5. What about any aspects that you felt weren't working?

My only major criticism of this highly-recommended production is a dramaturgical one that deals with the play itself. I have a feeling that there is a bit too much going on in the play than there needs to be, and that MacLeod gives us supporting characters who offer some comic relief but who don't really drive the story forward. In my mind, this story is about Alistair, his daughter and his sister (in both remembered and present versions). In other words, I can't help wondering what this play would look like as a four-hander, pared down to its essentials. Right now the play feels a bit like taking a warm bath...we know upfront that all will end up okay. I'm wondering what it be like to experience it as more of a drama...a long cold shower. It wouldn't be as funny a play, and perhaps we would miss the laughter that helps us cope with the powerful emotions generated by the story. But maybe (for all that) it would be an angrier, more raw and perhaps even more truthful play about the damage done to so many innocent children, and how that damage causes permanent scars that are passed on, from one generation to the next.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Photos: Top, poster for [sic] from Theatre SKAM []
Bottom, Greg Landucci in TJ Dawe's Dishpig []

This past week I saw the one-man show DISHPIG written by TJ Dawe in collaboration with performer Greg Landucci at the Vancouver Fringe. This show has played in a number of Fringe Festivals and been warmly received and Vancouver is no exception: It was voted a “Pick of the Fringe” and will be extended into early October at a number of different venues (see While it is unavoidable in my role as local critic/theatre artist that I must review the performances of friends (Landucci and I were students together at the Phoenix Theatre at UVic), my focus here is less on his very accomplished performance and more on the play that he has written with popular Fringe icon TJ Dawe. What I found so refreshing about the play is that it stands on its feet as a play, which cannot be said for many Fringe shows that offer performance experiences, good, bad and sometimes ugly, but that cannot always be called 'plays'. DISHPIG begins with the autobiographical in mining the memories of both playwrights from their days of dirty and difficult work in restaurant kitchens, but ends with quite a class-conscious and moving picture of a young man who learns that he has more inside him than he knew, and who is therefore able to move on to better things than cleaning up after other people for minimum wage. Landucci invites us into the world of Matt, freshly home from 3 months backpacking in Europe and in need of both lodging and work. When the best he can come up with is being a dishwasher in a second-rate restaurant, he steps into the subculture of kitchen life where hierarchies written in stone determine that he is now the lowest of the low (of course, the servers are the gods and goddesses in this world). The play gives us portraits of a number of characters and Landucci, directed ably by Dawe, renders each of them with distinct facial expressions and verbal precision. He also takes us through the mind-numbing robotic repetition of actions required in dishwashing (“Sorting, stacking, soaking, spraying...”) in a piece that has been described, quite accurately, as performance poetry, and is very funny to boot.
I do have a couple of quibbles, though. Landucci does a lot of 'head acting' in the show and relies perhaps a bit too much on facial expressions and tight, controlled gestures. This constraint, while mostly effective, makes me long for a moment or two in the play when both Matt (and the actor) can engage his whole body, can really 'let go'. I'm not asking the play to 'show' rather than 'tell', but rather to find moments where the physical can help us hear the story as well. My second quibble is from a woman's point of view. While restaurant kitchens are a largely male domain, I know, I felt that the portrayal of the goddess-like server Gemma for whom Matt longs was more one-dimensional than her male counterparts, and therefore less sympathetic. I don't expect these characters to do other than they do, but it would have been nice for us to see her being genuine, even for a moment. After all, even the Gollum-like evil Murray, who torments Matt throughout, is given a sincere moment...why not Gemma?
These slight critical notes aside, I remain impressed with another TJ Dawe hit that is a great vehicle for an old friend who I always knew would find himself back on stage, and appears to be very much at home there.

The second show I saw this past week, [sic] by Melissa James Gibson and produced by Victoria's Theatre SKAM, was a bit of a disappointment, I'm afraid; a good production of what I thought was a not very good play. The fact that the play won a prestigious Obie award in its original New York off-Broadway production notwithstanding, I found the play clever and somewhat engaging, but ultimately a bit empty of real content with characters for whom I felt very little empathy when all was said and done. SKAM has a decade long history of producing some of the best theatre in the city, and their shows have also done very well on tours to Vancouver and Toronto. This show at the Metro Studio boasts a wonderful set design by Craig Hall that works very well in presenting an apartment building with three separate bachelor-sized apartments. The occupants are three friends, Frank (Michael Rinaldi), Babette (Samantha Madely) and Theo (Lucas Myers) all of whom are underachievers in their various chosen occupations (a wannabe auctioneer, a writer and a musician) and who scramble to cover the basic necessities like food and rent. Gibson writes in a stylized way, though, with some of the dialogue written to be spoken chorally and I understand the script itself is devoid of punctuation or stage directions. Director Amiel Gladstone has given us an interpretation of this challenge that renders these three as veering toward clown-like, where their various 'quirkinesses' start off big and become more subtle (but still present) as the play continues. The dramatic tension lies in the age-old love triangle, where no one is going to end up with what he or she thinks s/he wants. The three actors all do well in their roles, but I found it more and more difficult over the course of the 90 minute show to actually care about any of them; they just seemed too self-involved and too, well, superficial. Maybe I just missed the boat on the Seinfeld/Friends generation (although I love the former show), and just can't quite get with these young people who can't seem to move their lives forward in any meaningful way, nevermind connect meaningfully with each other. The most effective moments in the play for me are solo moments; at night while lying in their beds the three create shadow puppets on sheets strung on a clothesline (a lovely effect) and confess their inner thoughts and dreams to no one but themselves. And Babette has a terrific monologue halfway through, to someone on the phone, about an encounter on the subway that is quite moving. Maybe it's not important that I didn't believe for one second that these characters are New Yorkers, but I didn't, and perhaps the original production was tinged with the New York mix of inbred irony, white-hot anger and fierce intelligence that seemed to be lacking here.

Friday, September 14, 2007


From top: SPAMALOT poster, EURYDICE poster, Eurydice arrives in the Underworld, Eurydice and her father with Chorus in rear

Okay, time to get back in the critical saddle, but before that...a thumbnail review of SPAMALOT. My kids' first Broadway show, what can I say, and a complete and unapologetic rehash of the movie MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, in most scenes word for word. But it doesn't take itself seriously and has some very funny bits, effective newly-injected and imported songs (the latter is "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN), huge sets, beautiful costumes and good acting. This is the second or third cast since it opened and it would have been fun to have seen Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce and Tim Curry in the first-run company. No standouts in this cast for me, aside from Broadway star Marin Mazzie as The Lady of the Lake. Mazzie has appeared in many hit shows, including those by Stephen Sondheim, and is sexy, funny and has an incredible raise-the-roof voice. She is given some very funny self-aware po-mo songs, as in the second act when she comes on in her dressing gown and furiously belts out "Whatever happened to my part?" A good time was had by all!

The other show we saw in NY was a Yale Rep production of Sarah Ruhl's EURYDICE at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre (where I saw Mary Zimmerman's THE NOTEBOOKS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI in 2003). A lovely revisioning of the tragic tale of the beautiful Eurydice and the musician Orpheus and their journey into the underworld across the River Styx. But in Ruhl's version, written following the death of her father, the play focuses less on the young lovers and more on Eurydice and her father, who become reunited in the underworld when Pluto takes Eurydice there. The father has chosen to remember his life on earth, a very unwise move (according to the trio chorus of Gothic Victorian grotesques) when he could so easily wash himself in river water and forget everything, i.e., be 'really' dead. The father helps his daughter--who has been "flooded with forgetfulness" upon her arrival--remember her life. In one of the most beautiful and simple moments in the show, he uses a ball of string to create a room for her to live in within the vast emptiness and nothingness of the underworld. They sit in there together and talk, like Lear and Cordelia as two little birds in a cage. Then Orpheus arrives with music so beautiful he makes the hard-hearted (and in this version, completely childish and selfish rather than malevolent) Pluto cry and thereby agree to release Eurydice. But Orpheus must never look back at her as they weave their way out of the underworld. The audience shares one of those priceless collective gasps when, after what seems like hours but is probably a couple of minutes into their trek circumnavigating the stage, Eurydice calls to Orpheus and he responds by turning around. The end of the play--when Eurydice returns quite happily to her father and finds he has made a decision she can only follow--is both theatrically powerful and emotionally devastating. The acting was very strong, in every part, with the actress playing Eurydice reminding me of a young Julia Roberts, very charming. The gorgeous and totally integrated (both practically and metaphorically speaking) set design, with live running water, was also a treat. A great choice and one that moved all of us to tears.