Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Photos: Top, poster for [sic] from Theatre SKAM [www.skam.ca]
Bottom, Greg Landucci in TJ Dawe's Dishpig [www.tjdawe.com]

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 http://www.vancouverfringe.com/). 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.

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