Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Beautiful View at Kits Neighbourhood House

Several years ago I remember seeing a Ruby Slippers production of Daniel MacIvor's A Beautiful View at Performance Works starring Colleen Wheeler and Diane Brown. I distinctly recall during one particularly emotional exchange between the two characters, tears and snot and spit leaking in copious quantities from the always intense Wheeler's face. What I forgot altogether was the stuff about the bears.

For some reason, I failed to blog about that initial Vancouver production of MacIvor's play. Now I get to remedy that with this response to Naked Goddess Productions' mounting of the work, which is on at the Kitsilano Neighbourhood House (KNH) through this Sunday. In this production, directed by Tamara McCarthy, Melissa Oei (Lucy from Long Division) and Sandra Medeiros take on the roles of Elle and Emme, women whose intimate friendship begins in the realm of comic farce, settles into a version of domestic melodrama, and ends on a note of surreal spirituality (the characters never call each other by their names, and I suspect that the script--which I have not read--allows cast members and director to come up with their own, as I've confirmed that Wheeler and Brown went by Linda and Mitch). Oei and Medeiros handle these shifts in style and tone with deft precision and the play itself uses a retrospective "she said, she said" narrative conceit, with multiple direct addresses to the audience, to provide a structural and temporal through-line.

That line begins with Elle and Emme's first meeting, at a camping store, and continues through a series of subsequent encounters during which each tells the other a succession of white lies about herself, and then promptly tries to undo them. The dissembling culminates in drunken sex at Elle's apartment, a seduction each woman pursues because she's under the misapprehension the other is a lesbian. Following Emme's ashamed and wordless retreat the following morning, the women don't speak to each other again until, several years later, they bump into each other while camping. Elle is now married and once they clear the air around their respective sexualities, the two women fall into a fast and easy friendship that sees them weather Elle's divorce, several changes of job, and the general ups and downs of life. Until, that is, another woman comes between them and the seemingly irreparable rift in their relationship that results can only be mended through a final camping trip. I won't reveal here all that happens during this concluding rapprochement, but let's just say that what transpires is enough to suggest that the "beautiful view" that gets described several times throughout the play may in fact be extra-earthly.

What I will say instead is how much I admired McCarthy's approach to staging this scene. As Oei and Medeiros sit facing each other on chairs, as at the top of the show, we hear the conversation they are having at their campsite in voiceover (a tapedeck, a key prop throughout the play, is positioned in front of them, a pitched tent behind). Both actors are incredibly compelling in stillness, fully engaged with each other, but with their profiles nevertheless telegraphing to the audience the multiple layers of emotion and memory that go with any long coupledom. For, questions of sexuality aside, that is in effect what MacIvor is giving us here: a portrait of two women who are more than sisters or best friends, a duo whose love for each other transcends conjugality but not the feelings of hurt and betrayal that are part and parcel of a truly meaningful relationship. In this respect the on-stage chemistry between Oei and Medeiros is effectively winning. Oei's Elle is the more confident and expressive of the two, with Medeiros's quieter and more insecure Emme frequently taking her cue from her friend. There is a moment, for example, when Elle invites Emme to join her inside a light-filled box, part of a pretentious art installation whose opening the two are attending. Elle tells Emme to close her eyes and feel the moment, with Oei intertwining her fingers through Medeiros' and throwing her head back in blissful abandon. But Medeiros' Emme, tinier and decidedly anxious, can only look up at her friend with incomprehension, saying she feels nothing. It is also Elle whom Emme takes her cue from regarding a possible afterlife, and there is no better sight on stage than watching the play of inner perceptions dance across Oei's face as she conjures from her character's imagination the wonderland of heaven. Even when she immediately undercuts her vision, we believe, along with Emme, that such a place might exist.

McCarthy's staging makes creative use of KNH's somewhat awkward playing space. Essentially a long vaulted hall that is a remnant of the building's former life as a church, there is a small raised dais at the room's north end. But rather than be constricted by a traditional vertical proscenium, McCarthy has flipped the action horizontally, with the audience positioned in a semi-circle and facing the wider and windowed eastern wall, and with a porous proscenium in this case framed by strings of lights that descend from the ceiling (the lighting design is by SFU alum Celeste English). As a result, we are remarkably close to the actors, and in part because of the complicity established between performers and spectators through the play's use of direct address, it often feels like we are immersed in the different spatial worlds referenced in the action, eavesdropping on the characters, as it were, from the next tent over.

Mind you, the actual tent on the stage is my one main bugbear from this production. I don't think it's needed. The other spaces in the play are evoked through just a few simple props, and in a play that goes back an forth between realism and abstraction, I think the visual signifier of the pitched tent is just distracting, especially as the women are rarely if ever inside it. It's also a bit awkward to move around, with Medeiros being the one who is tasked with retrieving it and then stashing it away stage right, an action that mostly has the effect of calling attention to the presence of stage manager Nico Dicecco (tucked away in a corner upstage right). Not that I'm opposed to showing the wires. I just think that rolling out and up a sleeping bag would have sufficed. Even that's probably too much. Indeed, it makes sense for the dark beyond of the campground--where these women are forced to confront both their innermost and their outermost fears--to be a wholly imagined space.

Cue those bears.


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