Saturday, October 6, 2012

Review: (Ottawa) How It Works

MacIvor's Folk
by Jim Murchison

How It Works is a very honest look at how we work our way through life and its problems. The stage floor is a blueprint for how the set pieces move about to create the various environments where the characters dwell throughout the period of the play, complete with opposing arrows indicating where the audience and actors position themselves in the theatre. Designer\director Stewart Matthews has the cast spinning about walls and doorways creating apartments, bars, theatres or police stations as required. 
Playwright Daniel MacIvor has set the play in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and his storytelling reflects the natural ease with which Maritimers can spin a yarn. Michelle LeBlanc introduces us to the play and its theme right at the start leaving no doubt in our minds that the "it" that the title refers to is life. She performs with an easy-going rural charm that belies the underlying wisdom that endures when you pare things down to their simplest components. Shortly thereafter we are introduced to her character Christine through that comical and awkward device; the first date.
David Whiteley plays a cop named Al who is trying dating again, although still obviously stinging from divorce and not yet reconciled with what his feelings for his ex-wife are. There is also a deftly played frustration with being at a complete loss of what to do about his drug addicted daughter. He plays the awkward uptight cop\father side of his character very well which makes him funnier when his almost childlike exuberance comes out as an excited theatre goer or boyfriend. 
Geneviève Sirois as ex-wife Donna is the most sheltered from life's awful truths. At first it appears that she is content to be an ostrich. Sirois plays up the vanity of her character, and everyone else is more than happy to keep her as much in the dark as possible. As the character evolves we discover that she understands more than we realize and actually resents not being told everything.
Hannah Kaya as Brooke, the prototypical teenager in trouble will be instantly recognizable to every parent. She uses her adolescent tools precisely; rolling her eyes and responding to concerned questions with "Oh my God!!!" Her shut down body language and apathetic or disdainful looks at her elders are spot on. She does not look like someone that ever aspired to be a Winter Carnival Queen.
Stewart Matthews allows the walls of the set to move with ease. The emotional walls and barriers that we put up are more difficult to move. By directing the movement of the characters so fluidly, the moments of stillness define the tension more powerfully. There is a moment of disclosure from Christine which is made more profound by Brooke facing upstage unable to leave with her hand frozen to the doorknob. The other thing that works very well in this production are the moments of awkward silence particularly when Christine first meets Al and even more so when she meets his wife Donna.
The 21st century family is a complicated dynamic that can involve people moving in and out of it. This play explores how difficult it can be to cut through the shame and the secrets to get to the honesty. As difficult a journey as it can be, honesty is the cure, but it is a treatment that has to be ongoing. I have to mention that I did hear some comments from people further back than I that there were some moments when they could not hear well. I didn't have that experience myself. I don't think it should be a problem to pick up the volume for the people at the back without losing any of the intimacy of a very well paced, entertaining portrait of family life that is as true and honest as its subject matter.

Speaking of storytelling, the director of How It Works, Ottawa’s own Stewart Matthews, will have the spotlight turned on him on Saturday, October 6th, at 10:30pm, as part of a new and unique series called Spotlight On… presented by Crush Improv.  Spotlight On... gives Gladstone audiences the opportunity to get to know the directors from this season's line-up.  Based on audience suggestions, the director in the spotlight will share true life stories; these stories will be the inspiration for a series of improvised scenes.

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