Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: (Toronto) And Slowly Beauty...

Christian Murray and Dennis Fitzgerald (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
Theatre shines a light on the desire for life’s reset button.
by Christian Baines

Could an evening with Chekhov change a man’s life? Some would say yes, only insofar as tempting him to end it, a criticism slyly referenced in And Slowly Beauty… A clever, inventive and transparently post-modern piece of work, it lays bare one of theatre’s most common goals: that it might hold a mirror up to our own lives in a way that provokes and entertains.

For a good chunk of its time, And Slowly Beauty… achieves that outcome handsomely, fleshing out the mundane, instantly recognizable aspects of Mr. Mann’s (Dennis Fitzgerald) life with humour and a strong kinetic energy that brings a wonderful lightness to its absurdities. The audience longs for a disruption to this cycle as much as Mann does, as he endures tiresome co-workers literally speaking in gibberish, a failing marriage, directionless children, dying friends and desire for a woman he cannot have. 

Whether the audience knows or likes Chekhov is largely immaterial. 

His wake up call comes at a performance of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, which forces him to view his life for what it is. In short, writer Michel Nadeau has accomplished no small feat in using a play about nothing as a platform for a play that goes all over the map of human experience. Whether the audience knows or likes Chekhov is largely immaterial. 

Fitzgerald brings a dynamic credibility to a character that is to a certain extent, inherently reactive. The opening scenes leave him looking a little like Kafka’s Josef K. ‘This is not my life. This is a nightmare,’ is the general tone, as Nadeau and director Michael Shamata lead him through what equates to a series of absurdist sketches.

The play is occasionally let down when it eschews comedy for pathos, particularly during scenes with Mann’s family. From the outset, they’re portrayed as frequently absent, detached and disinterested, so his attempts to reconnect with them feel a touch forced, as we don’t share his love for them. Here’s where some of the play’s two-hour-sans-interval running time might have been cut – indeed, it feels like two acts that have been hastily sewn together. Mann’s reconnection with his son feels like a preachy, TV-movie cast-off and his daughter is such a slim character, one wonders if the play might have been better off cutting her entirely. Better handled is Mann’s dealing with the imminent death of a young co-worker. Here’s where Nadeau’s observations about cherishing life ring truest, and where his allusions to Chekhov’s work really pay off. 

And Slowly Beauty… allows audiences to laugh at the inane aspects of working life before offering something far more profound as its central character starts to question the worth of the life he’s lived so far, and the life he wishes to live from here – and his determination not to spend it ‘pining for Moscow’ (or Montreal, as several minor characters do). It lacks a certain focus at times, but there are enough moments rich enough to make it well worthwhile.

And Slowly Beauty… plays at Tarragon Theatre until March 31.
Read also Christian Baines' interview with director Michael Shamata

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