Thursday, February 13, 2014

Review: (Montreal) The List

Daring Happiness
by Caitlin Murphy

Umberto Eco said that “We like lists because we don't want to die.”  In Jennifer Tremblay's play The List, an unnamed woman – suffering an isolated existence in the country, drowning in domestic ennui – certainly feels like she's dying. Making lists of errands, chores and groceries is her one lifeline, a repeated reminder to herself that she exists and might matter. Translated into English by Shelley Tepperman and directed by Steph Ouaknine, No Exit Theatre's production of The List aims for much greater resonance than it musters; the discrepancy means that this story of a locked-in woman ends up leaving the audience locked out.

The 75-minute one-woman play begins with a shocking admission: though our housewife narrator (Torri Higginson) didn't actually kill her neighbour, Caroline, she is indeed responsible for her death. It's an intriguing starting point, a premise that gleefully merges the banal with the macabre. The woman goes on to recount how in her boredom, she became fixated on Caroline, mother of four, soon to be five. The contempt and resentment she has for Caroline's messy, laissez-faire life mixes uncomfortably with the awe and envy she has for her existential ease. Caroline is happy. How dare she be.

Loosely divided into chapters with vague titles, the play's structure is quite choppy with not much variation or movement. Though Higginson very admirably conveys the woman's brittle, restless nature, her delivery quickly settled into a uniform rhythm. The drudgery of her life didn't always ring true, and the character's arc – going from complaining about the 'nosy bitches' in the neighbourhood to realizing she's likely the queen bitch herself – never feels all that satisfying or profound.

This is the second play I've seen in a week where the dominant feature of the stage design is the use of video projection. And though projected images were sometimes evocative and nicely complementing the play's action, more often they were too literal, photographs offering dull repetitions of what was already described in the text. This unnecessary doubling always leads to lazy storytelling and lazier listening. In a telling moment, our narrator crouched by a shaft of light, describing the experience of hiding in the closet. Her words and the simple shaft of light conveyed a stronger sense of  'closet' than the massive photograph of a closet shown just moments before had. Theatre's strength is its power to evoke the feeling of, the idea of, the essence of; it tends best towards the implied. Projections often forget this.

Along the way, the play certainly explores some pretty interesting terrain about the monotony of domestic life and the tedium of child-rearing. Housework is repetitive, unrewarding and non-generative:  it doesn't create anything new, only returns things to their original states (over and over again).  And many women experience awkward ambivalence about their roles and responsibilities as mothers, and then feel guilty admitting it. Tremblay also explores how lists can be fascinating revelations of character, often reflecting our unacknowledged ideas about ourselves. We write things down so we can feel like we've already done them.  

La Liste won Tremblay the Governor General's Award for French-language Drama in 2008 and the play has previously played to much critical acclaim. Though the play certainly had its strengths, it ultimately just didn't feel like it added up to much. Rather like items on a list, the production elements felt disparate, disconnected, never quite gelling together into a satisfying whole.

Feb. 12 - 15

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