By David French. Directed by David Mackay. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Thursday, February 1. Continues until February 25
“We are not adults. We’re actors.” This laugh-out-loud declaration comes deep into the final act of David French’s Jitters, a loving send-up of the fears and flaws of a small theatre company trying to make it to and through opening night.
There are antics and shenanigans, one-liners and wild physical comedy, and if that’s not enough, the Arts Club’s new production is set in 1979, the year Jitters was first produced, so the fashion is its own source of inspired hilarity (thanks to wonderful work by costume designer Mara Gottler).
Jitters begins four days before the opening night of a new play, and almost every single character has a lot riding on its success. Robert (Ryan Beil), the playwright, has spent three years on this follow-up after his debut earned critical raves, while Jessica (Megan Leitch), the star, is finally returning to Canada after having major success on New York and London stages. After two flops in two years, she hopes that after the play’s Toronto run, it will move to Broadway. This is essentially a nightmare for her leading man and rival, Patrick (Robert Moloney), a bully with a drinking problem and deep fear of failure who also happens to be Canada’s best actor. Director George (Martin Happer) doesn’t just have his hands full managing his leads, he’s also dealing with Phil (James Fagan Tait), a desperately insecure actor who has complaints about everything, and Tom (Kamyar Pazandeh), a young, first-time actor.
Under David Mackay’s joyful direction, Jitters mostly buzzes along, though some cast members seem more comfortable with the rapid-fire dialogue and the physical comedy than others. When Beil, Happer, or Tait is in a scene, the energy immediately ticks up and the pacing is perfect. When the attention focuses elsewhere, Jitters loses a bit of steam. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between, and only minorly distract from an otherwise relentlessly entertaining experience.
Almost four decades after its original production, Jitters holds up, and in part it’s because there’s little malice at its core. In Jitters, every disaster, every personality excess, and every drama is big but still rooted in something very real and recognizable—fear—which only makes the laughs that much more meaningful. It’s such an indulgent pleasure to engage in metatheatre of this calibre (owing to both the Arts Club’s standards and the quality of French’s writing). It’s not always a thrill to watch a play about a play, but it is when it’s like this: biting, affectionate, and funny in equal measure. > ANDREA WARNER
KING ARTHUR’S NIGHT
By Niall Mcneil and Marcus Youssef. Directed by James Long. A Neworld Theatre production, presented with the UBC Department of Theatre and Film and the Push International Performing Arts Festival. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Wednesday, January 31. No remaining performances
Take a deep breath and enter another world. It’s Camelot like you’ve never seen it before. And it’s for everyone.
King Arthur’s Night is a bracingly fresh, radically inclusive take on the Arthurian legends. Playwright Niall Mcneil, who has Down syndrome, wrote the script in collaboration with Marcus Youssef, and it is original, poetic, and full of surprises.
Mcneil is a commanding presence as the title character, and his writing weaves elements of his own life into Arthur’s court: Camelot is modelled after Harrison Hot Springs, a place Mcneil has often visited; and a bad childhood experience with a goat at the Caravan Farm Theatre, where Mcneil worked as an actor, informs the depiction of this piece’s villains.
Elements of the story thread in and out in a nonlinear, dreamlike fashion: Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere, Mordred and Morgana’s plotting of revenge, goats undergoing military training. The play is a poetic collage of powerful theatrical moments; its dialogue is terse, contemporary, and full of surprising images. Arthur describes his enemy thus: “Mordred fights dirty. He eats fingers.” Emotions are directly declared. “This is my anger mountain,” Morgana says in a confrontation with Merlin, “I wanna throw stuff.” Merlin tells her to calm down: “Take a bath or something.” She replies, “It’s too late for that.” These lines (and I could quote dozens more) may look plain on paper, but under James Long’s direction, such exchanges pack an emotional wallop, thanks to the full commitment of the cast—which includes three other actors with Down syndrome, whose abilities are beautifully showcased here. When Tiffany King, who plays Guinevere, enters in a royal procession, her joy in dancing—as a choir appears out of the shadows behind her—is contagious. Andrew Gordon has an impressive turn as a Saxon demonstrating military moves with a battle-axe. The other cast members provide support with refreshing openness and spontaneity.
Every scene between Billy Marchenski’s Lancelot and King’s Guinevere is moving. “The Queen loves you,” Guinevere confides at one point, and Lancelot’s reply of “I keep that inside of my heart” is delivered with heartbreaking sincerity. Kerry Sandomirsky’s Morgana is a sinister presence, circling the stage with menacing whispers. But Mcneil’s writing has plenty of comedy, too; he frequently punctures the solemnity of a scene with a well-timed oneliner. “Well, you know how goats are,” Morgana says when telling the story of her incestuous relationship with Arthur.
And then there are Veda Hille’s musical settings for Mcneil’s lyrics. The songs range from eerie to romantic to aggressive, and the cast members are supported by percussionist Skye Brooks and the choir, Cor Flammae. Josh Martin’s choreography incorporates both the earthy and the regal.
Shizuka Kai’s set, in which tree roots climb like serpents around an upstage portal; Christine Reimer’s sumptuous costumes; and Kyla Gardiner’s moody, dim lighting all make the show visually gorgeous.
King Arthur’s Night is a rare opportunity to see what inclusion really looks like—and to let its beautiful sounds and images wash over you. Don’t miss it. > KATHLEEN OLIVER
THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH By Thornton Wilder. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Studio 58 production. At Studio 58 on Saturday, February 3. Continues until February 18
The Skin of Our Teeth is more stimulating to think about than it is to watch. I don’t mean to slight this production, which approaches the script with zest; it’s just that the play hasn’t entirely stood the test of time.
Thornton Wilder wrote this Pulitzer-winning script, which celebrates human survival in the face of impending disaster, just as the United States was entering the Second World War. It’s no surprise that it’s been revived in recent years, with the threat of doomsday lurking in the shape of Donald Trump.
In the first act, we meet the prehistoric family of Mr. Antrobus, renowned for his invention of things like the wheel and the lever, who brings home a number of refugees seeking shelter as an apocalyptic ice sheet draws closer. Act 2 takes place in Atlantic City as the Antrobuses celebrate their 5,000th wedding anniversary. They’ve survived the ice age, but here comes a flood! The third act finds the family members returning home after the end of a more recent war, having once again survived catastrophe.
Wilder heaps up the allegorical references, and plays fast and loose with theatrical convention in ways that must have been mind-blowing 75 years ago. “I hate this play,” the Antrobuses’ maid, Sabina, confides to the audience, filling time after a missed cue. “The author hasn’t made up his silly mind as to whether we’re all living back in caves or in New Jersey.” But in 2018 we’ve all gotten pretty used to metatheatricality, and less tolerant of passages that stretch on with little apparent purpose.
But, man, it’s a big show. Director Sarah Rodgers gets very solid work out of her cast of 27 (!), including Erin Palm’s rebellious Sabina; Aidan Drummond’s frazzled stage manager, Mr. Fitzpatrick; and William Edward and Mallory James, who are clear and confident as the Antrobuses. Rodgers also sprinkles 1930s jingles and songs (with help from composer and musical director Joelysa Pankanea) throughout the action. These are lively and well-executed, but along with Sheila White’s period costumes, they create a sense of nostalgia rather than an urgent contemporary relevance.
David Roberts’s clever set reconfigures Studio 58’s seating, with the audience on either side of the Antrobuses’ rooftop, which converts into a boardwalk for Act 2. Emily Cooper’s animated projections are very playful but unfortunately somewhat lost off on a side wall.
So even though Wilder’s script sometimes feels a little like a tossed salad of ideas, you can’t fault the energy being poured into his hopeful message: we will survive. > KATHLEEN OLIVER
SHIT By Patricia Cornelius. Directed by Donna Spencer. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, February 1. Continues until February 10
Warning: coarse language, more coarse language, and a dangerous gap between concept and execution. Celebrated Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius earned a lot of praise in her home country for SHIT, which has its Canadian premiere in this Firehall production. The play is set in a prison, where three women—billy, Sam, and Bob—find themselves after committing a crime. Though we piece together parts of the women’s stories—all three have been abused and discarded from an early age—the script doesn’t follow a conventional narrative. The women are more like voices than fleshed-out characters, and Cornelius seems less interested in dialogue as a tool for exposition than as a proposition for rhythmic exploration. As a result, the women sometimes feel more conceptual than real, like pieces in a game that is primarily linguistic. The play’s preoccupation with language begins in the first scene, during which Billy drops about a hundred F-bombs in two minutes. (Example: “Who’s this fuckin fuck fuckin telling me I’m fucked up?”) Sam and Bob criticize her for overdoing the swearing; Sam describes Billy’s speech as “a thick carpet of fucks”. It’s hard to reconcile this playful analysis with Cornelius’s comments that preface her published script: “There’s not a single moment when the three young women transcend their ugliness. There’s no indication of a better or in fact any inner life. They don’t believe in anything. They’re mean, down mouthed, down trodden, hard bit, utterly damaged women.…they believe the world is shit, that their lives are shit, that they are shit.” Kayla Deorksen as Billy, Yoshié Bancroft as Sam, and Sharon Crandall as Bob embrace Cornelius’s wordplay like a trio of skilled slam poets, but I’m not sure that director Donna Spencer has made them or their world as mean and ugly as the playwright intends. Yes, there’s despair here—we get fragmentary glimpses of childhood neglect, foster care, and sexual exploitation—but also spirited defiance. And expansiveness: Conor Moore’s set consists of three elevated cells, but the women move around freely within and in front of them, at one point even frolicking around the bars during a scene change. What the fuck? I applaud this production’s intention to give a voice to women who rarely get heard. But other shows have done it better, more authentically, and closer to home. > KATHLEEN OLIVER