Saturday, March 30, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Overruled and Romance

Shaw and LaBute are as unlikely a pairing as their characters
...though their marriage runs much smoother.
by Christian Baines
Bernard Shaw’s Overruled and Nail LaBute’s Romance are both plays about the emergence of truth within relationships. So with that said, here’s another truth: I absolutely and unequivocally loathe fidelity dramas, only because too often, I find them insufferably earnest, preachy, naive, predictable, presumptuous and in a contemporary context... just plain untruthful.
But get a good one – or two, in this case – in the hands of a bold director and a great cast, and the results can be theatrical dynamite. 
As to be expected from Shaw and LaBute, Overruled and Romance take the subject in radically different directions. The first is a delightful farce in which the lines of two marriages cross over (Inexplicably in the same hotel room... This is Shaw. Try not to think too hard.). The overly-mothered Mr Lunn (Kelly Penner) has taken great delight in making love to Mrs Juno (Caitlin Stewart), blissfully unaware that she is a married woman – or that Mr Juno (Amos Crawley) has taken similar liberties with Mrs Lunn (Meghan Swaby). Cue the brief confrontation in the name of Englishman’s honour, embodied here in some gloriously silly physical comedy from Crawley, and a stream of one liners that the four players fire off with obvious and infectious joy. Penner in particular, seems born to play British Farce. His toasting Mr Juno as the latter warms up to fight him for his wife’s honor? Masterstroke.

It seems that Overruled’s message might have benefitted the couple at the centre of LaBute’s Romance

In the end, Shaw’s play throws a remarkably libertarian worldview on this well-worn subject. Silly as it is, Overruled is a remarkably sophisticated and insightful comedy about the limitations of monogamy, wrapped up in the playwright’s trademark wit and comic buoyancy which keep it palatable to a less, shall we say, progressive audience.
It seems that Overruled’s message might have benefitted the couple at the centre of LaBute’s Romance, which depicts a rather after-the-fact confrontation over ‘A’s betrayal of ‘B’ with another person (more on the play’s gender neutrality later) some years prior. ‘A’ (Penner or Stewart) has had to face up to the fact that s/he is incapable of commitment, monogamous or otherwise, and as such, has left a five year relationship with ‘B’ (Swaby or Crawley), who takes a far more traditional view – though interestingly, is now him/herself in an open relationship, presumably with a wo/man that s/he does not particularly love, judging by his/her continued pining for ‘A’.
Friday night’s performance saw Crawley pour his wounded heart out to a chilled, yet never stone cold Penner, and the completeness of their transformation from one play to another is a credit to the versatility of both actors. LaBute’s script has its moments of lagging cliché, but for the mostpart, like Shaw, he brings a much more human and insightful perspective to this subject matter than we typically see. His play is a fascinating autopsy of a relationship formed between two people at opposite ends of the fidelity spectrum, yet who both seem to be longing to experience love within the other camp – or at least, this is what shines through in the subtleties of Crawley and Penner’s performances. There’s also something just a little unnerving about ‘B’s final onstage action – no spoiling, but it let’s just say it opens up enough questions to fill a whole third play.  
Then, there’s director Carly Chamberlain’s fascinating decision to rotate the four actors in the parts. Played by the two men, this scene felt perfectly natural, familiar and very real. But how would it play between the two women? Realistically, one might expect a heterosexual pairing to put a far more traditional set of expectations on the couple. But should it? This is where Chamberlain’s casting rotation really pays off. By invariably reading each of the four combinations differently, we’re forced to confront our own assumptions about how different relationships work. Is there a difference in the way human beings love? Most certainly. But is it tied to gender, or just different individuals? It’s tempting to revisit the work more than once to see alternative cast members exploring this.
What’s not to love about a play that can send you off asking such questions both of yourself and your theatre companions for hours afterwards? Particularly after such a delightfully silly opening act.

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