LANDSCAPES OF THE DEAD
by Aaron Bushkowsky
Aaron Bushkowsky’s Landscapes of the Dead explores the spiritual costs of sophisticated life in the contemporary city. In his last play, Soulless, real estate development provided the focus for Bushkowsky’s dissection of the inner lives of upscale Vancouverites. Landscapes probes the soulscapes of its characters through the metaphor of fine art. The sensibilities of those who make, sell, and appreciate paintings are tested and found wanting.
The plot, incidental to the play’s concern with the characters’ interior lives, plays out in front of Tim Matheson’s striking projections of paintings from local artists on three large screens, accompanied by Paul Moniz de Sá’s jazzy urban soundtrack.
Gail (Marilyn Norry), a famous painter of semi-abstracts, suffers from a crippling degenerative disease. Despondent, she offers her final masterwork to gallery owners Phil (Bill Dow) and Diane (Laara Sadiq) if one of them will help her die. Gail’s son Albert (Chris Fassbinder) vehemently opposes her ending her life, and Diane is appalled when Phil agrees to the bargain.
Phil and Diane are divorced but involved again. Phil is also getting it off with Shelly (Erin Mathews), Diane’s assistant at the gallery. Albert is a Freudian mess, desperately trying to work through his relationship with his mother, his troubled emotions and confused sexuality.
Bushkowsky writes extremely intelligent dialogue, and Johnna Wright’s Solo Collective production provides him with some lovely performances. But far too many Big Ideas litter this landscape, much of the characters’ behaviour strains credibility, and nearly everything loses focus in the shapeless second act.
Norry does powerful work as the cranky, crippled artist, dragging her body painfully around the stage. But the themes she introduces, questioning the values of art, are soon forgotten in the debate over assisted suicide, which in turn fades into mother-son issues. Fassbinder whips Albert into emotional hysteria over his mother, but we never really understand what his issues are.
Phil is a middle-aged male fantasy. A college professor and apparent porn addict in mid-life crisis, he’s also having the hottest sex ever with his ex-wife who can’t resist him even after she learns he’s screwing her assistant. Foxy Shelly, though more than twenty years younger, also finds the paunchy, balding intellectual an irresistible sex machine.
Presumably, Phil is so attractive because he’s so damn intelligent, and Dow almost pulls that off. His low-key naturalistic acting is a pleasure to watch and Sadiq works beautifully with him. A couple of their conversations are quietly scintillating, though Diane’s behaviour ultimately makes little sense to me.
Easily the oddest character is Shelly. A complete ditz, she seems the least likely person Diane would hire for her gallery. And while Dow and Sadiq play Phil and Diane hyper-realistically, Mathews makes Shelly a larger-than-life cartoon caricature. She’s funny but belongs in a different play.