Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fringe Review 3: Biographies of the Dead and Dying

Nothing like a belated notice of the addition of nudity to get the punters out to a show. I had already decided on Andrew Templeton's "psychological ghost story," Biographies of the Dead and Dying, as one of my Fringe picks when I noticed advisories about its revised content starting to appear on the Fringe website and at the main ticket outlet on Granville Island. Then I noticed the updates about the show's remaining performances approaching sell-out status.

Which brings me to a short digression about a peeve I have with the Frequent Fringer pass, and the Festival's policy about reselling unclaimed tickets. For those of us who've bought a pass, there's no guarantee we'll get into our desired show, depending on how many advanced tickets have been sold, and how early or late we arrive at the door to get our card hole-punched. Last night I admit to cutting it close in getting to the Havana (Joanna and I were having a lovely meal at Me and Julio at the other end of Commercial and lost track of time). Initially when I presented my pass to the ticket person, I was told that the show was sold out. I was also told that despite the fact there were six unclaimed pre-sold tickets in front of this person, I could not use my pass to appropriate one (Festival policy, I was told). With the House Manager saying he had to close the theatre door and start the show, I told Joanna (who had bought a single ticket in advance) to go on without me. Then the House Manager came back and said he had counted 8 empty seats, and that I (and the one remaining customer behind me) could have one.

Now, logically speaking, in a Festival where all box office receipts go directly to the artists, why wouldn't you try to sell--or even re-sell--as many tickets as possible? Why ever in the theatre would you leave seats empty if people wanted to claim them, and pay good money to do so? I'll stop my rant now, but I do suggest Festival organizers rethink this policy for the coming years, especially in the wake of the collapse of other sources of funding. In these cutthroat times, one must be as mercenary as possible.

As for the show itself, I'm somewhat at a loss as to how to describe it. Part Henry James' The Turn of The Screw and Stephen King's The Shining, with a Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes writerly rivalry thrown in for good measure, the play focuses on blocked and alcoholic writer Alice (Heather Lindsay), who has written a successful chick-lit novel she now despises and is seeking material for a new book by renting a cabin on Vancouver Island said to be haunted by the ghost of its previous owner, Thomas, who committed suicide by blowing his brains out. This is related to Alice by the cabin's caretaker, Jack (Simon Driver), with whom Alice begins a torrid (and quasi-S/M) affair. The scenes between Jack and Alice (which involve myriad uses of an old washtub that serves as a key prop throughout the play) alternate with those between Alice and her husband, Jonathon (also played by Driver), a pretentious poet who belittles Alice's own writing, and her ghost project in particular. Alice also regularly speaks into a tape recorder to her unseen daughter, who may or may not be a figment of her imagination.

Needless to say, there's a lot going on here. But I'm still not quite sure what it all means. I think a connection is being made between ectoplasmic ghosts and ghost-writing (at one point when Alice is seeking to conjure a vision of Thomas, Jack suggests she try Yeatsian automatic writing). But as this gets mapped onto further explorations of the gendered division of creative labour and female "hysteria" (the stillborn child/novel), things get a little muddy and confusing. We're not helped by the fact that the play's largely horizontal plane of action is ill served by the Havana's awkward spatial layout. The combination of straining to see what's going on physically, and to understand how this relates to Alice's story mentally, proved very taxing indeed.

Still, the performances by Lindsay and Driver were fearless, and the relentless emotional intensity of the staging is more than enough to merit the sell-out crowds this show is deservedly attracting.


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