Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sleepless in Vancouver

Around this time of year it is customary for many of us to gather with friends and family at each others homes to share some food, maybe exchange gifts, sing songs, and/or play some goofy party games, and almost certainly raise a glass of holiday cheer. And, just as assuredly, witness at least one spectacular scene of relationship discord or breakdown. If you're looking to steel yourself for the latter event, or simply prefer to experience such things vicariously, I recommend checking out the inspired production of Caryl Churchill's Three More Sleepless Nights that's playing in different neighbourhoods around the city through this Friday.

Churchill's play was first produced in 1980, between Cloud Nine and Top Girls. Unlike these more famous works, Three More does not range boldly across great swathes of history, and contains little of their (at least at the time) radically experimental dramaturgy. Instead, it is a quiet domestic roundelay, sharply and accessibly written, involving two couples whose relationships, in the wee hours of the morning, have reached a crisis point. The innovation of this particular production, by a group of very talented SFU Contemporary Arts students and recent grads, is that the audience gets to witness the proceedings up close and personal, with the play being staged in a different borrowed apartment every evening--one which the actors, like us, are encountering for the first time.

This results in a most intriguing, and theatrically reinforcing, dynamic: that is, the audience's initial timidity and discomfort about following the actors around an unfamiliar space and observing them at their most intimate and vulnerable (ie, semi-clothed and in bed) is played off of the actors' equally improvisatory negotiation of a space that is likewise new to them, but which they must nevertheless move through and, indeed, command as if it were their own. No doubt this places just as much stress on the director (Conor Wylie) and the stage/production manager (Chelsea MacDonald): how to ensure your actors hit, night after night, both the comic and achingly anguished grace notes of Churchill's script while also giving them individual latitude on where--and when--to hit them?; how to find seven different workable spaces in the first place, and then to ensure that the few key props that are needed are where the actors would logically expect to find them? That both these questions are answered in this production is a credit to Wylie and MacDonald, respectively.

After we are all settled in the designated space, after we have been offered wine or beer, and after--most importantly--we have been encouraged to make a donation towards the evening's entertainment, the proceedings begin when Frank (Sean Marshall Jr.) arrives. He's drunk and his wife, Margaret (Tara Gallagher Harris), has been waiting up for him. Recrimination, in this instance, is less about how much he's had to drink at the pub than whether or not he was there with his mistress. Frank doesn't confirm or deny Margaret's suspicions; instead he taunts her by suggesting it's her fault for his infidelity, that her constant nagging, her poor housekeeping, and, perhaps most tellingly, her own ongoing flirtation with a man named Pete at the same pub has essentially driven him into another woman's arms. Marshall and Gallagher Harris, trailing each other back and forth between the kitchen and the bedroom, telegraph expertly in their overlapping dialogue, their tightly coiled movements, and especially in the weariness of their barely raised voices the complex mix of hurt and desire and regret of a couple who clearly still love each other, but who can no longer live together. That they find it impossible to move beyond this impasse is made clear at one point when we hear the offstage voice of a child being kept awake by their arguing (well, okay, it was Chelsea, kneeling beside me in the bedroom doorway).

The scene between Frank and Margaret ends when she goes to cool off--literally--in the shower. Two different actors--who until that point had just been fellow members of the audience--then strip to their underwear and hop into the bed just vacated by Frank. We are immediately plunged into the insomniac world of Dawn (Jamie Taylor) and Pete (Dan Borzillo). For the first few minutes it's just the two of them exchanging an occasional foggy grunt, communicating to each other and to us a clearly recurring pattern of sleeplessness. Then Pete starts to recount the plot of the movie Alien (Churchill doing pop culture--who knew?), his childlike delight in its thrills likely doing nothing to calm the panic of his wife, who repeats more than once that she is frightened--of what exactly (her husband? unnamed forces in the world? merely the dark?) we're never sure. Taylor and Borzillo have to act most of this scene lying prone on a bed, and they do a marvelous job physically conveying the void at the heart of their marriage, with Taylor scrunched all the way to the edge of her side of the bed and Borzillo gathering the covers under his armpits like the grown-up kid Pete clearly is. Borzillo gets most of the dialogue and it is a testament to his gifts as an actor that he not only managed to make a movie I have seen many times new to me again, but that he was able to convey through his well-timed pauses and heavy swallows (each of which echoed like a clarion in that tiny room) that he has retreated to the fantasy world of action thrillers in part because his own relationship has become alien to him. Taylor, by contrast, must communicate her distress mostly through gesture, and just by the way she cuts and eats a piece of watermelon we get a clear sense of someone disquieted by even the most routine tasks--including sleeping.

The final scene is between Margaret and Pete, now together following what we surmise is the eventual collapse of their previous relationships. However, Frank and Dawn still haunt their former lovers, and as much time is spent talking about them as about each other. When Pete starts to tell Margaret the plot of Apocalypse Now, we can guess where this new liaison is headed.

All the principals involved in this production are to be applauded for their very fine efforts in staging this play. That I lay awake for much of the night thinking about various aspects of the performances is testament to their excellence. Tonight the cast will be performing in Yaletown, and on Friday the final performance will take place in East Van. I think both nights are technically sold out, but there might be last-minute cancelations or a waiting list. If you're interested, contact Chelsea at


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for this review. I had the chance to see this production last week, and was similarly impressed.