Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: (Montreal) The Number 14

Sarah Rodgers and Stefano Giulianetti (photo by David Cooper)

Making funny
by Caitlin Murphy

Humour’s a funny thing.  

What elicits your laugh-out-loud delight might meet my stone-faced confusion, and vice versa.  So, a few quick comedy taste markers:  The Simpsons over Family Guy; British The Office over American; Larry David over Ron James.  Any day. Descriptors like ‘zany’ and ‘off-the-wall’ make me nervous; I associate them with making funny, not being funny. And perhaps all of this explains why The Number 14’s particular brand of grinding out guffaws was lost on me. But, personal biases acknowledged, the show’s got some splainin’ to do too.

As far as Canadian theatre goes, Axis Theatre’s The Number 14 is an astounding success story; it has toured intermittently for the past 20 years, including a run on Broadway, and garnered numerous awards.  Currently directed by Wayne Specht, the piece was originally created in 1992 by a theatre collective in Vancouver, and directed by Roy Surette, the Centaur’s Artistic Director, which explains the symbolic significance of the show’s final tour stop here in Montreal.

Many of these creations are quite engaging and fun, in theory, but the broad, bland comedy of the material never quite meets their charms.

Through a mix of sketch, clowning, music and movement, the play reflects a day in the life of the number 14 Vancouver bus.  A range of passengers – snot-nosed kids; over-sharers; obnoxious school girls; befuddled elderly – weave in and out of each other’s time in transit.  Heavily inspired by commedia dell’Arte, many of the characters are brought to kooky cartoon life through masks created by Melody Anderson.  Many of these creations are quite engaging and fun, in theory, but the broad, bland comedy of the material never quite meets their charms. 

Like the laminated National Enquirer that a passenger reads, announcing that “Elvis Lives,” the play feels sealed off and its humour feels stale.  Featuring an extended rap sequence, dated musical cues and cultural references, The Number 14 is clearly weary after its 20 years on the road.  Scattered attempts to shoe-horn in contemporary relevance – references to iPhones or 50 Shades of Grey –  do little to imbue the play with newer life; in fact, they wind up drawing more attention to its datedness, even creating confusion at times.

In fairness, the particular 20 years that have elapsed since the early 90’s have seen a radical shift in our attitudes about public places, and the ways in which we relate to our fellow human travellers.  Not fully incorporating these profound changes, the show certainly feels quaint and innocent, but it also leaves contemporary audiences in a place of smug remove – left out in the cold by an already over-crowded bus.

The six performers, who tackle dozens of characters and several highly-physical sequences certainly give it their all, pouring themselves into the demanding piece. The costume changes alone make for a pretty intensive workout.  

And the show certainly boasts some highlights.  An old lady (actually a male performer in drag) is sent ricocheting about the bus by a reckless driver, and acrobatically flings herself over and under the bars.  A man and woman flirt with each other through flipping through magazine ads in front of their faces, effectively rotating their ‘headshots’.  And a man finds himself, wherever he sits, possessed by the energy of each seat’s former occupant.  These sequences are the piece’s most imaginative and inspired.  But they’re the rare gems. 

The play has an intermission, and a running length extending beyond the two hour mark; having already left the depot running on fumes, The Number 14 pulls into its final station with even less than that.

To May 26

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