Monday, September 20, 2010

The Trespassers Review - September 20, 2010

Photo: Amitai Marmorstein as Lowell and Jennifer Clement as Roxie in The Trespassers (Photo by David Cooper)

1. The Belfry Theatre says that the plays of Canadian playwright Morris Panych have been seen on its stage more than any others. What is it about Panych's plays do you think that makes them so popular?

Panych is an actor and director himself and I can’t help but feel that these additional theatre abilities help him in his playwriting. Panych writes plays that must appeal greatly to actors, as he writes very quick and witty comic dialogue and also creates characters who in their ways are very often not quite ‘normal’ and yet who have to deal with bizarre sets of problems. The word ‘quirky’ is often applied to Panych’s work, much to his irritation I’m sure, but it is an accurate word to describe his dramatic world. It’s a world that is recognizable and yet somehow also a little bit askew, things are not quite ‘right’ somehow, either in the protagonists he creates or in the world they inhabit. For example, in Panych’s one-man play Earshot (produced by the Belfry some years ago), the main character suffers from highly over-sensitive hearing that torments him as he is forced to listen in on the lives around him. I think this is very much the kind of thing that makes Panych so popular with audiences…we are always delighted to be brought into this world that is not quite like ours and within which most often overly sensitive characters are struggling to cope or to conform to supposedly acceptable norms of behavior. Many of these characters, including in The Trespassers and a number of one-person plays written for young audiences in the 90’s, are teenagers dealing with challenging situations in their family lives or coming to terms with things like their sexuality or aging and death. The last Panych play seen at the Belfry was the Governor General award-winning The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl in which a young girl named Iris tells us in flashback about the series of events leading up to her mother leaving the family…not a happy plot and yet the play itself is filled with laughs.

2. And how does this new play compare to The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl?

Unfortunately, I found this new play somewhat derivative of The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl. Like Goldfish Bowl, The Trespassers has a teenage main character who tells us the story of what has happened to him. This character’s name is Lowell and whereas Iris in Goldfish Bowl has an overactive imagination and may be a bit ADHD, Lowell suffers from depression and bipolar disorder…a tougher set of circumstances altogether. However, also as in Goldfish Bowl, these kids are in dysfunctional families as the result of impending or actual abandonment by one parent. In this new play, Lowell’s father has left a year ago and Lowell is trying to keep it together with his Christian mother Cash and his atheist grandfather Hardy. But the small interior mill town they live in is in decline after the closing of the mill (partly due to the grandfather’s role as union rep) and the mother is spending more time at church. Lowell spends most of his time with his beloved grandfather and his grandfather’s ‘paramour’ Roxie (a highly entertaining riff on the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold motif) as they try to educate him about the ways of the world. In their working class view, this education involves learning about sex, gambling and how the rich rip off the poor. This is all very engaging and funny but leaves us feeling a bit ‘So what?’ until we hear that Hardy is dying of cancer and wants either his daughter or grandson to help him shuffle off this mortal coil. [Spoiler Alert] This explains why the play is framed as an interrogation by an RCMP officer who seems to be accusing Lowell of murder. As the play proceeds, we see in fragments how this all happened, although we are never certain when Lowell is telling the truth or bluffing as his poker-loving grandfather has taught him to do. The play in its second act becomes a lot more serious as we witness, in very nonlinear and sometimes frustrating partiality, what happens to Hardy after Lowell and Roxie rescue him from the hospital and take him to the peach orchard on the neighbours’ property. The abandoned orchard is ‘Private Property’ and the source of the play’s title as Hardy and Lowell steal peaches as their socialist right. The play ends in a way that felt to me a bit ambiguous (okay, so what actually did happen and if Lowell did kill Hardy, how has this affected him?) and also with a bit too much sentimentalizing of death including vague illusions (or delusions) of angels and reincarnation. So, for me, although I thoroughly enjoyed the show I couldn’t help but feel a bit frustrated and even slightly cheated out of a story that, as fragmented as it may have been constructed (which is fine), felt like some pieces had been left out by the end.

3. So the play may not be one of Panych's standouts...but how were the performances?

This is the strength of this production, which is very well cast and directed by Ron Jenkins. Lowell is effectively played by UVic theatre graduate Amitai Marmorstein, who has been seen locally in Jacob Richmond’s play Legoland and other shows. Marmorstein looks much younger than his actual age of 24 and looks and sounds very believable as a 15 year old boy. He plays Lowell with sensitivity and often great humor as we see him soaking up his unusual grandfather’s life lessons. However, I was less convinced by his occasional bursts of yelling that seemed to supposedly represent his mental instability. Surely a young person on lithium with this serious condition, who we hear has had suicidal episodes, would appear to be a little bit more ‘unusual’? Perhaps this is underwritten in the play itself. The wonderful role of Hardy is played to perfection by veteran Canadian actor Brian Dooley who gives us a fully rounded and accomplished portrayal of a man at the end of his life who is realizing how small his life has been, and filled with failure, at the same time as he is committed to leaving the best of himself behind in his much-loved grandson. Vancouver’s Jennifer Clement gives us a rollicking and fun-loving Roxie and seems to be enjoying every minute of this over-the-top character. The other two roles in the play are in my view the most unrewarding ones; Natascha Girgis does excellent work as the bereft and increasingly desperate mother Cash but I couldn’t help feeling how stuck her character is, and how little room she has to grow as her job is to be more reactive than active. And the final role of Officer Milton is such an unrewarding part, although played capably enough by Raphael Kepinski, that I began to wonder if it couldn’t be done as an offstage voice interrogating Lowell, as the poor actor is left sitting and watching the action for so long we forget he is there.

4. And how did you feel about the other elements of the show...the set the lights the sound...did they add to the overall effect of the play?

I very much liked the set design by Narda McCarroll that effectively evokes a peach orchard with dozens of real (or maybe plastic?) peaches and peach-colored globes hanging from the flies and a wooden floor and backdrop that resemble a fruit crate. Kerem Çentinel offers a lighting design that successfully snaps us back and forth from the police interrogation into the various scenes where Lowell’s memory takes us. Brian Linds creates a subtle sound design that effectively underscores the action. So, in the final count, I can heartily recommend this as a well-produced, directed and performed production of a Morris Panych play that may not reach the heights of his best plays but offers plenty of entertainment and things worth reflecting on—the right to die with dignity being the most significant—to make it worth a trip to Fernwood.

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