Saturday, February 10, 2018

My Funny Valentine at The Dance Centre

Zee Zee Theatre's tenth anniversary production of Dave Deveau's My Funny Valentine is currently running at The Dance Centre, following a successful tour to Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto. It's an anniversary in two senses: it's the first play by Zee Zee playwright-in-residence Deveau that the company shared with an audience, beginning with workshop presentations overseen by Zee Zee Managing Artistic Director Cameron Mackenzie in the summer of 2009; and, more soberly, it also commemorates ten years since the death of Lawrence King, whose murder in February 2008 by a male classmate to whom he'd had the temerity to send a valentine inspired Deveau's own love letter of a play to all who have suffered violence for following their hearts.

This is not the first time My Funny Valentine, which has won many awards, has been remounted by the company. I previously attended and blogged about the last Vancouver production at the Firehall here. I won't rehearse all that I said in that earlier review about the play's structure. But I will note that one of the unique  features of Deveau's play--and also a way he solves the conundrum of writing for and to the ghost of someone whom we can only ever know through media reports, or as some group's positive or negative symbol--is how he tells his story at a slight remove, through the voices of those who knew the boy or have come to be affected--including, in some cases, positively or opportunistically--by his murder (Lawrence is never identified by name). These characters are all played by a single actor, in this case SFU Theatre alum Conor Wylie, who is as convincing inhabiting the body language and drawn out vowels of the bored and cynical tween Gloria as he is the at once bluffly swaggering and emotionally desperate working class masculinity of a homophonic father.

That said, two characters stand out for me, both in terms of the quality of Deveau's writing and the luminosity of Wylie's performance. The first is Helen, a teacher at the high school of the murdered boy who cannot let his death go. She is the only character we meet more than once, and the recurring conceit of her nervously and clumsily spilling whatever she is drinking all over herself is a sign of how shattered she is by these events--to the point where she burns through both her job and her marriage. Her final appearance at the end of the play, ten years after her student's murder, also allows Deveau, in this most recent staging, to do some subtle updates to the script--in part to show us all that hasn't changed in America in the past decade. The second character I found most affecting was little Ronda, a motormouth of a girl who has two Dads and who is awaiting a liver transplant--a final act of love from the dead boy that this time is reciprocated fully and completely, because that's all Ronda has herself been shown in her life. Wylie is able, in turn, to convey this joyful contagion to us in a way that is simple and direct and that feels like a blessing--just when we need it most. All while talking a mile a minute about hating the smell of tuna fish sandwiches.

Today's matinee audience was a bit sparse; no doubt we were partly competing with the weather. The play continues for another week and I urge folks to get out and see it. Quite simply, Deveau has written a classic, and Wylie is giving a star turn.


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