I've seen and admired Patrick Keating's work as an actor about town (including as a memorable Fitz in Rumble's 2013 production of Enda Walsh's Penelope) for many years. He's also had a long and successful career in television and film. His current starring role is in a work--his first--for which he is also the playwright. Inside/Out had its PuSh premiere last night at Performance Works, in a co-presentation by Touchstone Theatre, and produced by Neworld Theatre, Main Street Theatre, and Urban Crawl.
The play is an autobiographical solo reflection on Keating's ten years in and out of prison, starting when he was sixteen and continuing off and on until his mid-30s. Most of that time was spent in the Quebec penitentiary system (Keating grew up in Montreal), but during his last sentence--which coincided with the first Quebec referendum--Keating requested a transfer to Matsqui prison in BC. (Keating's account of his hand-off at the Vancouver airport--a Kafkaesque whirl of paper-signing and briefcase-opening and closing--is hilarious.) It was while at Matsqui that Keating enrolled in his first theatre class, which focused on clown, and the end of which happened to come after his scheduled release. He requested a five-week delay in his release so that he could complete the course.
Preceding that climactic revelation, and following a brief opening set-up recounting his teenage problems with authority and drug use, we are essentially treated to a series of anecdotes about life on the inside. In the richness of their documentary detail, these stories offer fascinating insight into the different ethnic and cultural rivalries between inmates, as well as the surprisingly tender affective relationships that can sometimes form. Keating's affectionate relating of a trans prisoner's love affair with her body-building boyfriend, her heartbreak at his release, and then her anger at him when he reoffends and they are reunited put me in mind of the wonderful Queenie in John Herbert's Fortune and Men's Eyes.
On their own, these episodes are frequently compelling and build to satisfying narrative payoffs. Collectively, however, they do not combine into a dramatic structure that has a parallel overarching emotional reward at the end. Stephen Malloy's direction is also surprisingly static, with Keating essentially moving back and forth from downstage to upstage, and from sitting to standing, to tell each successive story. Noah Drew's sound design and Jaylene Pratt's lighting design occasionally add additional sensory texture. But for the most part Inside/Out relies for its theatricality on the instrument of Keating's voice--which, to be sure, is what he eventually found by doing time.
The piece is bookended by Keating's reference to a box of files that he carries with him onto the stage at the outset--his life history as it has been documented and recorded by a series of officials. For most of the play it remains stage right, unreferenced. At the very end, Keating opens it and sifts through the colour-coded files, reading off their titles. They can't possibly explain, let alone compete, with what we have just heard. As a framing device, it feels a bit contrived. But as that which helped to unlock Keating's playwriting voice, I can understand why it's necessary.