Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Knockout Point

I have always been a huge fan of the particular brand of metatheatre developed by Daniel MacIvor at da da kamera, the company he founded in 1986 and ran with producing partner Sherrie Johnson (now resident curator at PuSh) until 2006--and out of which came several important collaborations with director Daniel Brooks. Never Swim Alone (1991) was one of MacIvor's first big successes, and last night I caught Hardline Productions' excellent staging of the play at their tiny studio space in Gastown.

In Never Swim Alone, two friends from childhood, Bill (Raes Calvert) and Frank (Sean Harris Oliver), work through their adult frustrations and anxieties (with work, with their marriages, with material success or the lack thereof) in a literal game of one-upmanship, each doing his best to humiliate the other and so score a point from the comely bathing suit-clad female Referee (Lisa Goebel) overseeing their competition. All of this is done in a largely presentational style, with the actors speaking directly to the audience, or in warring "duologues," verbal sparring that produces a fusillade of words we thrill to hearing even as we recognize its largely assaultive function.

In this respect, the fit between MacIvor and Hardline is a good one, as the company's mandate is to produce plays "that punch you in the face"--at least figuratively speaking. And in terms of linguistic knockouts, it is arguably with this play that MacIvor patented da da kamera's trademark theatrical patter: fast, furious, repetitive, with a logic that accrues as much through rhythm and sound as through content and sense, and where the beats come not between the words but within them. Never Swim Alone is a verbal fugue on speed, with the characters' overlapping and counterpointed voices adding rich resonance to the one refrain they actually speak in unison--"beat you to the point." In the language of the play, this refers both to a swimming race gone horribly wrong from the boys' past and the increasingly extreme physical stakes that will eventually come to hijack their verbal jousting in the present.

Needless to say, all of this requires virtuosic performers with amazing timing and great articulation. Hardline's cast did not disappoint, with narry a dropped line or missed cue, and with great presence and physicality to back up their delivery. As written, MacIvor's characters are more functional types than psychologically complex individuals, but it is a credit to the performers--and to director Genevieve Fleming--that Bill and Frank and the Referee do not remain mere ciphers, and that they convey a range of emotions throughout the tightly paced 50-minute show.

Calvert and Oliver, Hardline's Co-Artistic Directors, along with Fleming and Goebel and much of the crew, are products of Studio 58. Once again we have that venerable institution to thank for gifting to the city another amazing upstart local theatre company.


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