Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review: (Toronto / Theatre) Swell Broad and The Homemaker

(photo by Neil Muscott)
by Lucy Wells

The Storefront Theatre, despite recent flooding, is open for business with a double-bill of Swell Broad and The Homemaker (though note that certain—ahem—facilities are out-of-order and you’ll have to go across the street to the gelateria for those, and also buy tiramisu gelato while you’re there. I checked.  It isn’t poison).  It’s a good pairing: both are new plays set in the mid-20th century, dealing with women questioning their role in society.

Swell Broad, written by Brooke Banning and directed by Laura Anne Harris, shows various stages in the unconventional courtship of Delilah and Stuart.  Performed by Janelle Hanna and Philip Furgiuele, the play is a dance between the two characters (and they really do dance at times), as each tries to figure out what he or she wants from the relationship, and neither seems able to keep from knee-jerk contrariness. We root for the bluff, booming Stuart, and the intriguing, conflicted Delilah (especially with Hanna’s Transatlantic delivery!), but, well—romances aren’t so much fun if things run smoothly, are they?

The play is well-acted and produced (though Hanna and especially Furgiuele could have adjusted their volume down for the space as they were getting feedback at times), but I felt as though the last scene in particular went on too long before it reached its climax.  As well, it would have been nice to perhaps learn a bit more about the characters’ motivations: I felt as though they were often just being difficult to annoy each other, and couldn’t quite figure out why they kept going out, even with the actors’ undeniable chemistry.  That said, Swell Broad is an engaging, funny play that shows an unconventional response to mid-century expectations of romance and marriage.

After the interval came a one-woman show, The Homemaker, written and performed by Laura Anne Harris, and directed by Morgan Norwich.  Based on the life story of a relative of Harris's, it is an extremely funny and touching portrayal of one woman’s experience of married life, and how easy it is to make things worse instead of better.  Harris leads the audience on a wild ride through her relationships with her family, her husband, and alcohol, through a series of songs, dances, monologues, and reminiscences, as a cabaret complete with a spotlight. Throughout her frantic efforts to win over the audience with her humour and baking (I do like it when cookies are handed out as part of a show), we see a well-meaning woman trying to make sense of her experiences as a Francophone in an English-speaking Saskatchewan community, as a devout Catholic intrigued by the ways of the world, as a clever woman feeling trapped in the role of homemaker, as a wife unsure of her relationship with her husband, and finally as an alcoholic unable to keep things together.  We can’t help but like this woman, and as she and her story unravel, we can’t help but feel for her, even if her story’s ending feels somewhat contrived.

In short, both Swell Broad and The Homemaker give us an insight into two women’s lives in the middle of the last century, and how both flouting and espousing convention have their benefits and drawbacks for these spirited characters. This show is one of the best pairings of short plays I’ve come across, and played in one of Toronto’s many small and intriguing studio theatres, makes for a great, intimate evening. Definitely worth seeing, and not just for the free cookies.

April 8 - 13

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