Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: (Winnipeg) Bloodless

(rehearsal photo)
Bob's your uncle
That bugger is better off dead
by John Herbert Cunningham
[This article has been corrected]

If a medieval jousting tournament was the first thought that entered the audience's mind as they filtered into the theatrical space of the new Cercle Molière in Winnipeg (just opened within the last six months or so), there would have been justification.

Theatrical spaces come in a variety of configurations. The most common are the proscenium, which is the design of most of the larger theatres, such as the Manitoba Theatre Centre's Mainstage and also its Warehouse. In these stages, the audience sits facing the stage. Smaller theatre spaces, such as the Prairie Theatre Centre, will often employ the thrust design where the audience surrounds the stage on three sides.

Cercle Molière is what is referred to as a black box theatrical space where the seating can be configured in a variety of ways including both the proscenium and the thrust.

But what Sharon Bajer, who directed version 3.0 of Joseph Aragonís Bloodless:  The Trial of Burke and Hare for White Rabbit Productions, decided on was a design completely unfamiliar to most theatre goers;  the alley stage. Here, the staging area runs between seating on either side hence the medieval jousting match.

It then morphed into version 2.0 with Theatre 20 in Toronto.

This design has both pros and cons. The pros were evident in Act I; the cons in Act II following a rather lengthy intermission.

Before going on to discuss the performance, let's examine the play. In particular, the cryptic 3.0 referred to above. Joseph Aragon has a long history of involvement with the Winnipeg Fringe Festival where, since 1999, he has presented both regular and musical theatre. His three-part Illuminati has become a crowd favourite. Bloodless began, in 2009, as a Fringe play put on by White Rabbit. It then morphed into version 2.0 with Theatre 20 in Toronto. It has now returned to Winnipeg as version 3.0. Actor, director, playwright, jill of all trades, master of several Sharon Bajer, while associated with the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, is primarily known by her association with Prairie Theatre Centre's playwrights unit. Aragon and Bajer came together initially through the Fringe. It has been a promising collaboration.

Now to the play or, rather, plays given that there was a marked difference between the experience of the first act and that of the second.

The play centres around the lives of four individuals: William Burke (Carson Nattrass), William Hare (Cory Wojcik), Hare's wife Margaret (Heather Madill), and Burke's girlfriend Helen (Jaclyn Kurceba). The most well developed of these characters is Burke, the others being somewhat two dimensional. 

Hare and Margaret operate a boarding house that has seen better times and is in danger of being repossessed by the bank. Hare and Burke enter a boarder's room who owes Hare four pounds. The boarder is deceased causing Hare anxiety that he has lost the four pounds. Suddenly an idea enters Burke's mind - why not sell the cadaver to the local medical school. Not only is the four pounds recovered but an additional four pounds plus demonstrating that the cadaver business is much more profitable than the boarding house business. This is particularly so when the medical school asks no questions regarding the cadavers.

the audience responds as if being addressed personally

The first act demonstrates the pluses of an alley stage design. At one end of the alley sits the boarding house where Burke, Hare, et al hatch their schemes to supply the medical school with a continuous supply of cadavers. This leads, in the case of the second one, to the hilarious song "The Bugger is Better Off Dead" which is sung by Hare and Burke to the smothering of a sick and alcoholic tenant. At the other end is a raised platform on which will stand both Knox (Doug McKeag), professor at the medical school, and magistrate Rae (Gordon Tanner) during the investigation and trial of the Burke and company. This design creates a pseudo-proscenium.

The alley stage design also creates six entrances which do not just broach that mythical fourth wall but demolish it. Contrary to any type of Brechtian notion of keeping the audience at a distance, this approach renders the audience an effective part of the play, so much so that, when Rae addresses the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the audience responds as if being addressed personally.

The alley approach is also an effective venue for portraying the antics of the chorus which moves up and down its length to a choreography very effectively designed by Kimberley Rampersad who has been involved as actor, dancer and choreographer in several Winnipeg productions this year.

But then intermission arrives.

Returning to the theatrical space, the audience enters into a second play, the one that demonstrates the cons of the alley design. Here, the chorus becomes less of an element and the two endpoints of the alley which were used quite effectively in the first act are diminished.

One of the prime directives of an actor is to never turn your back on the audience. Although this occurred at times in the first act, it wasn't  that often. It became a frequent occurrence in the second becoming magnified in importance as a result of the diminished use of the chorus.

The act stretched on endlessly like the intestine.

Another problem was the elevation of a relatively minor character  Mary (Emma Stefanchuk) in the first act to a position of the prime antagonist in the second. Hare became almost a minor character as Mary took over.

Certainly there were some highlights in the second act. One of these was when Knox, the medical professor, had his students wheel out a cadaver to centre stage. During the surgery where the students, led by Knox, performed a dance macabre around the corpse singing what was virtually a show tune, Knox proceeded to cut an incision into the corpse and begin to pull out a lengthy stretch of small intestine along with a liver and pancreas. But the highlights of the second act were few. The act stretched on endlessly like the intestine.

In a brief phone interview with her, Sharon Bajer commented that she had been exposed to the alley stage concept when she directed at the Tom Paterson stage at Stratford a couple of years ago. When confronted by my comment about actors never turning their backs to the audience, she strongly disagreed commenting that as long as there isn't a back to the audience for too long, the movement is more authentic.

Was Bajer's experiment in the use of a radical new stage design warranted? In the first act yes; in the second no.

Was the play enjoyable? For the most part, yes.

Bloodless runs at Cercle Moliere until May 4.

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