Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: (Vancouver) Balm in Gilead

3D theatre of a dangerous world
You can smell the onions and taste the fear

by David C. Jones

Lanford Wilson is a prolific playwright having penned some great works in the 80’s like Burn This, Talley’s Folly and Fifth of July. When he was a young writer he experimented with form and structure.

Balm in Gilead was written in 1965;  it concerns a dangerous romance between a naïve new girl in the city and the part time ruffian trying to get out. It all takes place in a café populated by prostitutes, addicts and petty criminals. 

There is even a death in both plays that has little impact on most of the other characters.

Like his play Rimers of Eldritch that was about country folk  (recently staged locally by Fighting Chance Productions), characters talk through each other and over each other,  there is a stranger in town, the dialogue is circular - demonstrating that even though people talk about change they don’t. There is even a death in both plays that has little impact on most of the other characters.

There is also Bible-inspired music in both and pulsing energy and chaos that really capture a slice of life in an ‘amalgam of realism and theatrical illusion’.

Director Bob Fraser with set designer Naomi Sider take it  even further. Most of the audience is in the café sitting at booths and tables. The characters sit down beside you in some cases and eat and drink. Real food! It was shocking to smell onions on the burger served beside me!

They don’t interact with audience members though, you are literally a fly on the wall or in the case of this diner – a cockroach on the wall.

it’s the actors that really make it sing

While the staging is very clever – nothing like having a fight or two break out and having one assailant come hurtling towards your table – it’s the actors that really make it sing.

This production features many of the fifth and sixth term students who were just in the musical Spring Awakening. How remarkable it is to see so many of them so completely transform themselves in this show. Two standouts were Patrick Mercado as Dopey, one of the ‘guides’ in the show, and once again Stephanie Izack,  magnetic as the drug addled prostitute.  Both were gritty, real and with the nonchalance of an expected survivor.

We also get to meet in the second show of the term, the fourth year students. Blasting out of the gate with an impressive performance was Chirag Naik as another ‘guide’, Fick – twitchy but happy, this drug addict was clearly not long for the world.  Julie Leung as Babe also captures the desperate sadness and drive of a brazen junkie. We are told, “junkies never fall off their stools, they teeter but don’t fall, drunks fall.”

Chris Cope as Joe and Masae Day play the young lovers – ‘our plot’ – they bring a lot of heart to their roles but Ms Day has a crazy long monologue in Act Two – a device we have seen in other shows – but here it just falls flat. There is no need or objective or sub-text. She needed more guidance in that unwieldy speech.

But that is a blip in a truly unique night out; a chance to see young actors portray people we wonder about. We don’t learn anything new but we do develop empathy to see them so up close and that can be transformative.

Until April 7th

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