theatre review

by Stephen Belber
Squire John's Playhouse in the Beaumont Studios
316 West 5th Avenue
October 28-November 13

First, I love this tiny new studio space in the Beaumont Galleries at 5th and Alberta. In fact I love the Beaumont Galleries, a whole building full of funky artists’ studios where literally everything is for sale, including the furniture. The theatre space itself is a 60 seat black box where you’re right on top of the actors and the action. It’s intimate and immediate, much like the late lamented VLTA space in the basement of Heritage Hall on Main Street—the kind of place where, when the acting is fake you know it in a second, and when real and powerful it’s like a punch in the face.

OK, let’s just spread the love around a little more. I loved this show. Not the play so much, although it’s an interesting piece. In the style and spirit of David Mamet, especially his Oleanna, American playwright Stephen Belber gives us a one-act sketch about ethics and personal power politics. We’re in blue-collar doper Vince’s motel room in Lansing, Michigan, where he’s come to see the festival debut of his long-time best friend Jon’s debut film about, in Jon’s words, “why this country is so fucked up.” A slightly pretentious liberal intellectual, Jon also can’t help offering advice to Vince about how he should reform his personal behaviour towards women. But Vince turns the tables on Jon, forcing him to confront what he did—or might have done—to Amy, a girlfriend they shared in high school. In fact he’s arranged for Amy, who now lives in Lansing, to join them at the motel. And when she arrives, the power dynamics among the three of them shift again and then again, as does the story of what happened ten years earlier.

The ethical conundrums, personal relationships, and questions of motives in the script are compelling, though sometimes the shifts seem like transparent manipulations by the playwright. I was reminded of certain acting exercises where the focus is on “status”—whose is higher, whose lower. But what makes this show so exciting is director Mathew Harrison's decision to present the play twice every evening with two casts. So after intermission you see the play again, exactly the same except for minor changes in blocking, more substantial differences in the actors’ interpretations of the roles, and a major difference in your own perception because now you know the story. It’s an utterly fascinating experience.

The biggest change for me the night I saw it was in the character of Vince. In the first act Chad Cole played Vince as a kind of bully. I found his character obnoxious and unlikable. Sage Brocklebank made Jon pretty sympathetic. So I was definitely rooting for him in the conflict between the two guys. Even after meeting Jennifer Halley’s powerful Amy, I was still mostly on Jon’s side. But in the second cast—and on alternate nights the two casts take turns going on first or second, so the audience’s perception will be different again—Jeb Beach is dopier, funnier and kind of charming as Vince, more trickster than bully, and neither Noah Casey’s Jon nor Nicole McLellan’s Amy were able to win me over. It was the same play but completely different.

All the acting in this Equity co-op is solid, with Beach and Brocklebank (who co-produced the show) as stand-outs. But Harrison’s inspired idea to run the play twice with different casts is what makes this brain-stimulating experiment a truly exceptional evening of theatre. Highly recommended.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, December 28, 2004 8:21 PM
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