Saturday, April 7, 2012

Review: (Toronto) Clybourne Park

Mark McGrinder, Sterling Jarvis and Audrey Dwyer in Clybourne Park. Photo by John Karastamatis.

This Good
Clybourne Park is another dish of brill from Studio 180 Theatre
by Dave Ross

“I wish that every time I went to the theatre, it was this good.” These were the words my fellow CharPo contributor Stuart Munro shared with me as we left the Studio 180 production of Clybourne Park at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs on Friday night. And I absolutely have to agree. 

The play is solely character-driven—there is no waiting for events, no guessing at what will happen next. Act I, set in 1959, introduces us to Bev (Maria Ricossa) and Russ (Michael Healey), a white middle-class couple preparing to move away. This first act begins innocently enough, but as more characters are introduced, we start to get uncomfortable. This climaxes with the arrival of Karl, who is dismayed that a “coloured” couple has been allowed to purchase the house, and his hearing-impaired wife Betsy. Karl is smarmy, but quickly moves from smarmy to reprehensible as he lays out his case for not having a coloured family move into the neighbourhood—all while Bev’s African-American maid Francine and her husband sit in the same room, and are even consulted on how they would feel moving in “next to a bunch of white folk.” is even more unnerving to realize that this kind of discussion is still happening. 

This type of scenario showcases the genius of Bruce Norris’s script. Not only are we to bear witness to a discussion that is absolutely abhorrent in our eyes, but it is done in such a way that highlights the social awkwardness of the situation, meting out more discomfort with each and every line. This genius continues in the second act as we fast forward to 2009 and a conversation about the historic nature of the neighbourhood. Set in the same living room fifty years later, this conversation seems much more civilized than the previous one, but this doesn’t last. We become even more shocked as we realize that the discussion playing out on stage is exactly the same as the one from the first act, only now it has been framed with new cultural sensibilities and more elevated language, showing us that this discussion has never stopped. As horrible as it is to hear the characters from the first act debating “coloureds” in the neighbourhood lowering their property values, it is even more unnerving to realize that this kind of discussion is still happening. 
Contributing to the excellence of the script is a liberal dose of humour, much of it inappropriate, which makes the play even more deliciously awkward as characters trade racist barbs in the second act. Somehow, Morris is able to use this humour in such a way that he gives the audience permission to laugh at jokes we know should not be funny. The script does not propose a solution to either of the two discussions. Rather, the play is an examination of race discussions in two different eras, and we are there to bear witness. 
The cast is excellent, with every actor playing a different character in each act. Especially good are Audrey Dwyer as Francine/Lena and Maria Ricossa as Bev/Kathy. Both actors are able to create completely distinct characters; there is not one vestige of Francine in Lena, nor Kathy in Bev. Another mention goes to Mark McGrinder as Karl/Steve, who plays the most repulsive character in both acts. You can hardly stand to look at him at points, and this takes talent. The set design by Jung-Hye Kim is extremely realist and brilliantly transformed for the second act. The sound design by Lyon Smith plays a minor role in the play, but wonderfully bookends the performance and deserves a mention here. 
Excellent theatre shows us the truth of our day to day lives without judgment or attempting to offer solutions, and Clybourne Park is truly a piece of excellent theatre. It finds the perfect balance between awkwardness, discomfort, and humour, promising a thought-provoking and hilarious night out at the theatre. Everyone should find the time to see this play—you’ll laugh, you’ll squirm, and leave the show with a new perspective on some discussions happening in our own city right now.

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