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vancouverplays review


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— Production poster

By David Auburn
Menmonic Theatre
The Cultch
May 30-June 8
$25 at

In a theatrical environment cluttered with small companies hard to tell apart, how does an ambitious young group separate itself from the pack? In the case of Mnemonic Theatre the strategy is to offer a money back guarantee.

Hate their production of the Pulitzer Prize winning play Proof? Want to leave at intermission? No problem–you get a full refund. Just don’t ask to come back for Act Two.

This clever idea garnered the company some good publicity in advance of their run at The Cultch. The better news is that they’re unlikely to have to offer many refunds. Mnemonic’s Proof is a really hot show, a compelling production of a somewhat overrated play.

Despite having won the 2001 Tony Award as well as the Pulitzer and enjoyed a long run on Broadway, David Auburn’s play about mathematics and family doesn’t add up.

Its central character, Catherine, is the 25-year-old daughter of brilliant math professor Robert. Robert has just died after spending five years in the depths of a severe mental illness through which Catherine has nursed him in their Chicago home. Older sister Claire arrives for the funeral and wants to take Catherine back to New York with her, because little sis appears to be exhibiting some of Dad’s psychological problems.

Catherine has also inherited some of Robert’s math wizardry–and we’re not talking about the ability, say, to multiply large sums. This is heavy-duty, Nobel Prize level, theoretical stuff. She has spent only one semester at university, but the play asks us to believe her capable of dealing with a sophisticated proof of a problem that has stumped mathematicians for centuries. Claire is skeptical. So is math whiz Hal, Robert’s former student, who is at the house poring through the 103 notebooks Robert filled during his mental illness. So am I.

Fortunately, the theorem is really a red herring. The audience isn’t asked to understand any of the math, and the problem itself has little to do with the characterizations and relationships that make the play work. (These are two of the many ways Proof differs from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a much superior play about a young female mathematician.) A budding romance between Catherine and Hal, an odd couple of sisters, and Robert’s portrait of genius gone off the rails provide lots of opportunity for the kind of dramatic writing that American playwrights do best.

And here’s where the production shines. Jim Preston finds the logic in Robert’s madness and makes the guy likeably human rather than some weirdo crazy brainiac. Minh Ly also does a nice job as Hal, successfully navigating the inconsistencies Auburn has written into the character regarding his motives. It’s easy to see why Catherine falls for him. Andrea Yu faces a tough challenge as ultra-together, relentlessly positive Claire, keeping just to the right side of the fine line that separates character from caricature.

At the heart of the show is Josette Jorge’s Catherine in a performance that oozes subtext. So much of what Catherine has going on is unspoken, and Jorge manages to convey volumes through her body language, long stretches of stillness, and a beautifully expressive face. I still don’t entirely buy the character as written, but Jorge is a joy to watch.

Raugi Yu’s fine production also features effective contemporary costumes from Christopher David Gauthier and an interesting use of video in the window of Shizuka Kai’s somewhat awkward front porch set. The shallow acting space doesn’t allow for much variation in the blocking, and the creaky wooden floor is a distraction. Yu could also lose some of the curiously spooky sound and lighting cues.

One more thing worth noting about this production is its Asian Canadian cast playing characters not designated as Asian. This is a rarity in Vancouver and a welcome sign (though not proof!) that we are creeping towards colour-blind casting as the norm on the stages of our culturally diverse city.

Jerry Wasserman