Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jitters at The Stanley

David French, perhaps English-Canada's most produced playwright of the 1970s and 80s, is getting two revivals in the Greater Vancouver Area right now. Salt-Water Moon, part of French's Mercer Family cycle, opened at the Gateway this past Friday; directed by Ravi Jain, this touring co-pro from Toronto's Factory Theatre and Jain's own Why Not Theatre is a heavily stylized take on French's period-set Newfoundland love story. The production got raves when it opened in Toronto in 2016, but according to our friends Richard Wolfe and Connie Kostiuk--with whom we had dinner last night, and who attended the Gateway opening--Jain's choices produce decidedly mixed results, and there were more than a few walkouts.

By contrast, the Arts Club staging of French's backstage comedy Jitters, on at the Stanley through February 25, adopts a reliably naturalistic take to its story, and the audience ate it up. Director David Mackay has chosen to set the play in the year it was first produced, 1979, in part as an homage to outgoing Arts Club AD Bill Millerd, who opened the company's second Granville Island venue that year. More practically--and very rewardingly--in terms of production design, this choice has given costume designer Mara Gottler free rein to reproduce the shaggy hairstyles and flared pants and garish colour palettes and clothing patterns of the period. An eye for authentic temporal specificity also extends to both sides of Ted Roberts' revolving set, including: the psychedelic hues of the wallpaper, throw pillows, and afghan in the living room of the play-within-the-play of acts one and three; and the grimy, overstuffed dressing rooms of act two. Even the pre-show and intermission music was chosen with care.

Likewise the entire cast feels at home--both emotionally and physically--in their parts. Megan Leitch, as the diva Jessica Logan, and Robert Moloney, as her cynical and hard-drinking co-star, Patrick Flanagan, are expert foils, their constant verbal sparring nevertheless allowing us to see the vulnerability that each is attempting to mask: for Jessica, the Canadian who has made it in New York, a fear that she is past her prime; for Patrick, the home-grown talent who has decided to remain a big fish in a small pond, the gnawing anxiety of failing on a bigger stage. James Fagan Tait, whom I mostly know as a director, reveals himself to be a hilarious master of comic timing in playing Phil Mastorakis, the jobbing character actor who has a habit of drying on stage and who still lives with his mother. Kamyar Pazandeh, as the company's male ingenue Tom Kent, conveys just the right amount of wanting-to-please-everybody desperation, and also gets a breakout moment of Y-fronts-wearing physical comedy in the second act. As, respectively, the put-upon director George Ellsworth and the alternately protective and self-doubting playwright Robert Ross, Martin Happer and Ryan Beil do their best to referee all of these egos, while also finding time to needle each other on various artistic choices. Raugi Yu, looking like an Asian member of the Bay City Rollers, gets in a few good digs against everyone as the martinet of a stage manager Nick. Kaitlin Williams, as the front of house manager Susi, and Lauren Bowler, as props person Peggy, make the most of what little their parts give them to do.

And in terms of action, French's play is not an all-out farce in the manner of Michael Frayn's Noises Off. Which perhaps explains why, as a spectator, I kept leaning in and out of yesterday's performance. All three acts have significantly different tonal qualities, which mostly pertain to the additional statement about Canadian artistic nationalism and our longstanding cultural cringe towards the United States that French wishes to make. Thus, in act one, the set-up of the animosity between Jessica and Patrick at a rehearsal four days before opening is skewed in its beats mainly towards punctuating the binary choices facing theatre artists in Canada in the 1970s: flee to the US to make it on Broadway; or plod along anonymously in rep in Canada. To be sure, the start-and-stop rhythms of the rehearsal--with everyone offering an opinion on the script or wanting something from director George, and with Nick in voiceover reminding everyone about the ticking clock--are a warmly affectionate poke at the world of the theatre more generally. But it's only towards the end of act one, with an aborted entrance by Phil, that we actually start edging into the comedic hijinks we've been waiting for. And it's only in act two--set on opening night, with both Phil and Tom seemingly AWOL, and with the Broadway producer who's come to see the show stuck at the airport--that we move into full-blown farce. Director Mackay and the entire ensemble nail all of the physical action here, and both the laughs and the pacing are satisfyingly relentless, with the audience exiting into intermission on a nice collective high. But in act three French makes another tonal shift, returning to meta-commentary via an extended dissection of a post-opening review in the Toronto Star. Again, there are some nice moments of insider recognition here, but the resolution of the supra-conflict around artistic integrity as distilled through the opposition between Jessica and Patrick feels somewhat forced.

And also dated. This is by no means a fault of the production. I'm merely noting my own feeling that the extra layer of quasi-political critique about Canadian cultural production that French attempts to fuse to the genre of farce (and for a Quebec-focused 70s-era take on this see Robert Lepage's film No) hasn't aged so well.


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