The Designated Mourner by Wallace Shawn, and directed by Daniel Brooks had its Canadian première last night at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace and opened to an enthusiastic and appreciative crowd. It was recently mounted at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival, where we wondered if those notoriously tough audiences felt as we did: part of a wild roller coaster ride that was exciting, scary, dangerous, and that sometimes had us wondering why we got on, although loving it. Though difficult to characterize, the play, like all great innovative theatre, pushes the envelope and the audience in its ability to provoke thought and opinion while awash in fabulous acting, lights and sound.
Sleazy character actor (Princess Bride, Clueless) and controversial playwright (Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever) Wallace Shawn has created one of the most interesting plays of the year. Shawn's artistic crusade to rip away the camouflage of morality continues in this most unsettling play about a barbarous Orwellian world where intellect is abhorred and feared. Shawn's bizarre tale is related by Jack (Eric Peterson), a former student of English literature. In some cultures, explains Jack, a representative of the bereaved is appointed as the chief mourner. And in some extreme cases, when an entire tribe or clan is wiped out, anyone who has ever once had contact with the departed may serve, even a child from another group. As the lone survivor of an autarchic ban to recall life within a circle of friends and family from a now-extinct intellectual community, or what he terms "the disembowelling of the over-embowelled," Jack has appointed himself The Designated Mourner.
The details of this sad history are sometimes related subtly, light-heartedly and circuitously so that when the gory details do arrive they come as literate shock therapy. The author has described the mood of the play as "one of mourning and lament." An apt description, but Jack's monologues, especially during the first act's 75 minutes, alternate between cynicism, laughter, and explosive opinion.
Jack's memory brings back, as stagemates, his estranged wife Judy (Clare Coulter), a refined lover of literature and music, and her father Howard (Paul Bettis), a celebrated poet and, by all accounts, self-absorbed pain in the rear. The three characters hardly interact, but when they do, especially in a vivid dream sequence, it adds a new and clearer dimension to the individuals, somehow making them real. Their speeches and anecdotes are presented to encourage audiences to think critically and not look for easy answers. It may sound too cerebral for some tastes, but abundant concepts are presented, and everyone will take home something different.
Our keen interest, despite the daringly minimalist form of three actors and three chairs, validates the brilliant revolutionary power of Shawn's language perfected by wunderkind director Daniel Brooks. The design team of Julie Fox and Michael Levine (set), Andrea Lundy (lighting), and Richard Feren (sound) has created a barren world that mirrors the characters' existence. Specifically, the marvellous back, side and front lighting of the three players is eerie and richly evocative. Coupled with the sensational sound effects, the design helps produce some unforgettable moments of theatre.
The trio of actors couldn't be bettered. Peterson does a brilliant turn as Jack, a sardonic character who looks a little slovenly, but is animated and fun, bringing a depth of emotion to a blithe character that can be difficult to communicate. He jumps on the roller coaster and doesn't let up until the last few passages when he reclines with a final chuckle, seemingly exhausted in his chair, accompanied by the longest light fadeout in recent memory.
Clare Coulter, who has personally lobbied to bring Shawn's often-controversial plays to Canada, now brings a wealth of experience to the role of Judy. Intense and often moving, her character has to alternate between powerfully affecting monologues and interaction with Jack and Howard. Coulter is also relegated to long periods of still silence. It's a very tough job for this definitive Shawn interpreter.
Paul Bettis makes his Tarragon acting debut as Howard, having previously directed works by Mavis Gallant and Steve Petch for the theatre. He broods and condescends well, though his is the lesser of three roles, absent entirely from the second, and shorter, act.
Literate, entertaining, and wonderfully refreshing, the play left an indelible stamp on us with Shawn's innate ability to arouse debate. In the world of tuneless musicals and stuffy dramas, that is remarkable.
The Designated Mourner continues until October 26. It plays Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets $20-$25; Saturday matinee at 2:30 p.m. Tickets $20; Sunday PWYC matinee at 2:30 p.m.
Patience, written by Jason Sherman, and directed by Ian Prinsloo is now playing at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, to April 5, 1998. This is a world premiere by Tarragon's prolific Playwright-in-Residence whose talents have brought us The League of Nathans; Three in the Back, Two in the Head; The Retreat; Reading Hebron; and None Is Too Many. Sherman is a successful and honoured playwright, but we must confess to being somewhat stymied by this play. Patience, while occasionally funny, is a rather pessimistic view of life that doesn't contain the same dark-humour and quick-wittedness of Sherman's previous works. In fact, the main character is so morally repugnant that you may end up cheering his misfortune rather than sympathizing with him. That may be Sherman's wish, but this character's journey and crash to earth is not that involving. Long pauses in action and dialog allowed these reviewers to reflect, not on what isn't happening on the stage, but where they might better be spending their time.
We've all known them: guys that have it all, overflowing with braggadocio and themselves, self-absorbed with the perfect life and wife, and blind to reality. Patience's protagonist, Reuben (Peter Hutt), plays killer squash, has a huge deal about to break in Korea and drives an expensive gadget-filled car. This bellicose bully bellows and berates his way to the top of his company, and world, and generally gets his own way no matter what the consequences. Reuben's kingdom falls out beneath him with the same bluntness of as his excruciating personality, and while the author, in his notes and interviews, would like to compare his character to the that the biblical paragon of suffering, Job was an innocent victim of divine intervention whose purity of spirit was attested by none less than God himself. Reuben's destruction, on the other hand, is the rich desert of his hubris.
As Reuben's universe tumbles, everything he has come to count on turns to dust. His long-suffering wife Donna (Susan Coyne) packs his bags after finding an intimate exchange of letters from family friend, and mistress, Sarah (Sarah Orenstein), wife of buddy Paul (Richard Waugh). Paul visits Reuben predicting his friend's catastrophe, but, with a device better left to masters like Dickens, is actually a visit from the dead. Paul had died in a plane crash several months earlier while on his way to Vancouver to make a new life for himself ... sans wife Sarah. If this sounds confusing, the audience has an equally tough time figuring the multiplicity of characters and their relationships, and the leapfrogging decades.
The destruction continues with Reuben's firing on grounds he is "tough to deal with," and his exposure as an embezzler. He is summoned to Miami to deal with the death of a brother, while another brother Phil (Diego Matamoros) is a teacher in lust with young student Liz (Leah Salomaa), for whom he leaves his wife of twenty years. Phew!
The interesting, and minimalist, two-level set (Dany Lyne) supports Reuben's view of his world, both conscious and subconscious, while a large and versatile box is transformed into cars, dining tables, and other devices for him to ponder his sorry existence. Through the tough breaks, Sherman forces us to answer questions about our own existence, especially in today's instant-gratification world. How could we put our lives back together in today's spiritually brutal and uncaring environment?
Prinsloo gets performances from his cast, but, while there are heaps of talent on the stage, they all seem rather detached from each other. Peter Hutt made an electrifying Tarragon debut in 1996 in Jason Sherman's The Retreat, but Patience has him just going through the motions, flat and obnoxious. Sure, there are moments of fire and brimstone, but does he make us care? Shaw Festival buddy Orenstein also has fine moments as the widow-mistress et al, while always-reliable Stratford veteran Coyne delivers the punches when necessary. Matamoros is the real disappointment here, playing two main characters as though they were one: brother and business partner were indistinguishable except for their names. Waugh has some of the lighter comedy in several roles.
Sherman tries many tricks in telling the tale of Reuben, and while flashes of brilliance and insight are there, Patience is rather underpowered and filled with characters we wouldn't want to know and ultimately don't care about.
Patience runs to April 5. Tickets $20 to $25. Sunday PWYC matinee at 2 30 p.m. Special prices for seniors and students, except Saturday nights Call 416/531-1827