Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Awake (Next Stage)

Lauren Brotman (photo credit: Steve Carty)

When Much is Given and More is Wished
by Christian Baines
It’s almost impossible not to admire the intent behind Laura Mullin and Chris Tolley’s Awake. The pair interviewed over 100 members of the Jamestown & Rexdale communities of Toronto to create their script, quoting the accounts of residents more or less verbatim. Their approach firmly steers the story of this violence plagued neighbourhood clear of melodrama, and gives it an authenticity that’s both the play’s biggest draw card, and its unfortunate downfall.

Mullin and Tolley bring no unique voice of their own to this material
There are two great challenges to Awake’s documentary style that its script fails to overcome. One is that in staying true to the voice of their subjects, Mullin and Tolley bring no unique voice of their own to this material. Secondly, yes, these are the thoughts and confessions of everyday people, not writers. And while that keeps the script clean of hyperbole, it unfortunately weighs it down in a certain degree of familiarity, even cliché, muting its overall power. While these people certainly don’t lack for moving stories to tell, Mullin and Tolley seem to forget that they too, still must be storytellers here. There’s a certain lack of direction that sees cast members often hanging out on a crowded stage with little to do, and a rather ham-fisted use of projections (The projector mysteriously went blank at one point, breaking the focus of the scene entirely). Far more effective is the ghostly figure that haunts the back wall at appropriate points throughout the show, leaving one wishing the creators had trusted their theatrical leanings a little more.
Much of the work is framed within a local church, providing a suitably loose context that wraps up the characters’ mourning, disillusionment and eventual hope. On that note, the cast deliver an impeccable gospel number, which is fine, until it turns into three or four. In addition, a Pastor delivers an impassioned eulogy lifted directly from a real gang violence victim’s funeral. This is one point where Awake’s commitment to reality seriously undercuts its drama. Yes, of course these are words appropriate – even inspiring – within the context of a funeral. But within a dramatic work, they come across as dull and preachy, imploring the audience for empathy, rather than simply commanding it through performance. 
Nobody can accuse the cast of failing to embody their subjects, but they never show much in the way of vulnerability either. The emotions are there, but they seem carefully guarded, falling well short of the rawness that truly would have earned our empathy, or perhaps, stirred us to the action the Pastor demands. One half expects a petition at the door after the show, to catch patrons in the unlikely event they missed the show’s whole ‘This is real! You will be moved!’ mantra.
In the end, Awake undercuts itself by treating its subject matter with a certain respectful distance that not only flattens the drama, but seems to contradict the show’s plea that society’s emotional distance from these communities is precisely what’s failing them. Do we need to see violence on stage to truly feel that message? Of course not. But we do need to feel the pain, hurt, and ultimately hope that gets these people through – fully exposed, not edited out of ‘respect’ or good taste.
Awake has plenty of solid, potentially very moving material to work with, but never finds its own unique voice, or the fearlessness with which to give it life.

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