Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: (Montreal) You Can Do Whatever You Want

Darcy Gerhart (photo Maxime Côté)

A Dance With Time
by Caitlin Murphy

In You Can Do Whatever You Want, a shiny red Thunderbird – stuck in place, but roaring through time – connects the lives of Pat, Holly and Donna, three generations of disgruntled Thomas women, living in Burnt River.  Presented as part of the National Theatre School’s New Words Festival, and written by graduating playwright, Jesse Stong, the play is a tender and moving ode to family legacies, women’s relationships, and life’s strangely intoxicating dance with time.

Under the direction of Emma Tibaldo, this production offers a rare treat – a very happy marriage of all production elements, creating a world that feels coherent, inviting and whole.  Technical and design elements were sensitively and adeptly handled:  soundscape and music composed by Brian Kenny, lighting design by Alexander Russ-Hogg, costumes by Naomi Mathieu and set by Shlomit Gopher come together beautifully and with clear commitment to the heart of the play.

The humour is most successful when it’s off-the-cuff and unconscious – accidental insights into life’s confusing ironies.

In many ways, the thematic territory here is well-trod:  generations of women report on and connect through that brand of uniquely female malaise:  burnt dreams, frustrated ambitions, unplanned pregnancies, the distracting comfort of vices.  In each time period – from the 50’s until present day – the women’s problems are both different and unchanged.  Pat sold Tupperware, Holly hustles for Avon.  Gender expectations are always dramatically shaping, sometimes determining, women’s lives.  That said, Stong navigates this familiar territory with energy, grace, and insight.

With dramaturgy by Claudia Dey, this script is compelling and complex, inter-weaving numerous narrative threads.  The world of the play is rich and nuanced, and Stong’s dialogue is alive, fast-paced and full of wit.  

And it’s all supremely well-served by Tibaldo’s clear and elegant direction.  Three toy Thunderbirds, perched on small tables, and positioned at various points across the stage, brilliantly stand in for the car’s (and the women’s, and by proxy, our) journey through time.  With its glossy sheen and sleek design, the car also stands in stark contrast to the women’s mostly grey and frustrated lives.  Subtle signals cue our many entrances to and exits from the play’s three eras.  The most minimal of costume adjustments create lightning-fast transitions, supporting the play’s interest in time’s odd fluidity.  In short, the production moves beautifully.

Performances by the graduating class of acting students are each uniquely accomplished and affecting.  That said, and perhaps appropriately, the women certainly out-shine the men.  

At times the comedy in the piece is more keyed up than it needs to be. The blousy, drunken brawling between Pat and Holly, for instance, sometimes veers into the parodic, and Officer Charlie Chen trades in his vulnerable charm to play for easy laughs a few times.  The humour is most successful when it’s off-the-cuff and unconscious – accidental insights into life’s confusing ironies.  Also the background story for Pat (the eldest Thomas), in many ways the play’s anchor, felt the least charged and engaging of the three, and could perhaps benefit from greater clarity and substance.  Finally, and perhaps not surprisingly, with so many balls in the air, the play does labour a bit to find its final footing, after one of the three story-lines drops out  of the mix for quite a while.  That said, the ultimate conclusion is satisfying and well-earned, heart-breaking and warming at the same time.

Like the seasonal migration of geese that becomes a central image in the play, so much of life is about watching things come and go.  But like the indestructible Tupperware, or the ubiquitous Thunderbird, many things also travel with us – for good or ill – forever.  Beautifully sneaking into the heart of this contradiction is You Can Do Whatever You Want’s quiet triumph.

To May 4

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