Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Fortune and Men's Eyes

David Coomber, Julian DeZotti (photo by Guntar Kravis)
Where’s the Fortune?
One Man's Eyes Seek More
by Jason Booker

When an acknowledged classic, a landmark play in the country’s canon, has not received a professional production in a couple of decades, there is a reason for it. Sometimes that’s because the play may have been ground-breaking once but now plays as banal. Sometimes it’s that the worldview has shifted drastically and taboos have been dropped. Sometimes it is just because the play is not particularly great.

John Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes definitely proves the rule and the rationales, rather than refuting them.

Fortune and Men’s Eyes, as a script, has been reprinted numerous times, won a trophy case of awards and is taught in almost every Canadian theatre history course offered. The play made a splash as one of the first stage treatments of homosexuality – brutal, emotional and honest; certainly it was the first look at sexuality in a prison cell. On paper, it remains a landmark.

Sadly, Stefan Dzeparoski directs the production capably but without a cohesive vision.

However, during the years since its debut, the world has changed. Unlike some of the Gay plays of the period, Fortune and Men’s Eyes does not suffer heavily from the PR problem of unsympathetic, stereotyped or negative Gay characters.  Homosexuality is no longer criminalized in much of the developed world, though one of Herbert's characters lands in jail precisely because of his orientation. While the themes of sex and power are still inextricably linked to each other,  the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s seriously revised notions of sexuality, both in and out of jail. To invite someone to the shower-room to establish dominance means something completely different now than it did in 1967 when the play was written.

Back to the production at hand though: Birdland Theatre bravely tackles Herbert’s magnum opus in a stripped-down production taking place in the Distillery District, a neighbourhood where the old-fashioned workhorse goes to receive a makeover.

Caution must be used when reviving an oft-forgotten play as the purpose for the production – the goal and the vision for the show – need to be clearly articulated. Every choice must clearly support the script and demonstrate the reasoning why this effort was mounted and why the audience should now care, otherwise you relegate the script to become even further buried in the collective unconscious. Sadly, Stefan Dzeparoski directs the production capably but without a cohesive vision. Prisoners dressed only in loose-fitting black pants? Sexy but strange. Sound cues that incorporate Bach and atmospheric sounds from a live piano being strummed? Intriguing but inane. Having actors introduce themselves, their characters and the scenes? Brechtian and bizarre. Lots of ideas are present but they don’t hang together particularly well.

Staged in a roomy and very wide studio, Joseph Pagnan’s set loosely interprets the meaning of enclosure, using suspended, weighted ropes to define the boundaries of this super-spacious lockup. Unfortunately (and strangely for such a large stage) the production often feels static, without much movement to underline the themes or the characters. But the first impression of the set suggests a performance art installation that never uses all of the mysterious elements around the periphery to their full advantage. The lighting by Gareth Crew makes use of a challenging, low-ceilinged space by illuminating clearly and sharply, without the overuse of dramatic or heavy-handed moody shadows.

Within the space, dialogue frequently becomes inaudible. Due on opening night to a very noisy ventilation system that shut off two-thirds of the way through the piece, many moments of speaking upstage and too much realism.

Thankfully, the quartet of performers remain the core of the show. If the performances of these four cannot hold an audience’s attention, then all is for naught. The fragile Mona of David Coomber, the machismo of Cyrus Fard’s Rocky and Alex Fiddes’ flamboyance as Queenie wonderfully set the scene for newcomer Smitty (Julian De Zotti) to enter the penitentiary. Possibly there were too many conflicting acoustic issues to be concerned with, but often the actors seemed consumed by a Method acting exercise: mumbling their way through un-PC sections, relying on film acting techniques of intimacy to create emotion. Nevertheless, the commitment these actors offer to their roles leads to some unflinching moments of violence and passionate moments of bitter rage. The characters are not physically confined here, but they do remain caged in by their era’s morality and their disempowered positions in the hierarchy as felons and (pardon the language) fags.

A worthy effort of a script more notable for its honesty than for its artistry (even though the title references a Shakespearean sonnet), Fortune and Men’s Eyes deserves its place in the annals of theatre history. Does it deserve this production as an attempt to rehabilitate its reputation?

Running time: an intermissionless 95 minutes.
Fortune and Men’s Eyes continues until September 8 2013 at Dancemakers Studio, Studio 313

1 comment:

  1. This is a terrific production and Toronto has not seen anything like this yet. The problem is that the critics are not equipped to fully understand this directorial take rooted in the tradition of the Japanese Noh Theatre. Back to school for Toronto theatre critic who are not able to fully articulate their dislikes.


Comments are moderated. Please read our guidelines for posting comments.