Blindness: To Laugh or Not to Laugh

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A review by Cindy Lapeña

I was able to catch a performance of Blindness: A Dark Comedy, a play by Mariève MacGregor, one of several performances in this year’s Charlottetown Fringe Festival. For those who are not familiar with the Fringe Festival, it is a frenzied weekend of one-act plays and one-person shows that have audiences running all over the downtown area with barely 20 minutes in between performances to get to the next venue. Or you can get a schedule ahead of the weekend and plan your 4 days so that you can leisurely stroll to the ones you want to see beginning at 5 p.m. and straggling home around 11 or midnight. Each show is staged at different times on each day of the festival, so it’s quite possible to catch all of them within the earlier hours of the evening. More risqué topics, however, are restricted to much later hours. All performances are free entrance with donations recommended.

Ba2015-08-06 18.07.06ck to the play. Blindness is a biographical piece based on the playwright’s actual experience of blindness from an unusual condition whereby the body produces too much blood, causing it to leak into the retina, which prevents a person from seeing. There was humour, no doubt, as the dialogue made light of a variety of situations encountered by blind people and how others can be oblivious to it or not know how to deal with it. More than just humour, though, the play was extremely enlightening in that it explained a great deal about the condition and the situation from first-hand experience. Something like Helen Keller’s autobiographical stories, but with fun. I have to admit that, while I did find the humour funny and the monologues informative, it was an awkward kind of funny–which was the general feeling I also got from the audience, who seemed unsure whether to laugh or not at times. It’s pretty much like when we make jokes about disabilities, race, and cultures. Political correctness and politeness keeps us from making jokes that might be seen as offensive especially if we aren’t the ones with the condition/race/culture. It’s okay for the Irish to make fun of the Irish, but if anyone else does it, it becomes offensive. In that vein, it might have been perfectly all right for the playwright to make light of her condition, but I thought the audience was not too sure if it was all right for them to laugh at her situation. I guess that’s where the dark comedy part comes in.

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As for the skill levels, one has to remember that the Fringe Festival is just so called because the works are by budding artists, novices, or amateurs if you will. The acting was decent, not bad for a troupe that was put together in a few short weeks. However, I could not get a feeling of passion or conviction from the troupe as a whole. I think the funniest characters were those interpreted by Andrea Filion, until she dove into a monologue. The problem with performing in an open space, is that the space drowns the characters. Even if I was sitting in the first row, I could not feel enough tension holding the ensemble together, nor was there enough projection, so that the acting was not big enough to magnetize the audience. I have to say that Ellen Carol‘s skill at hoops is impressive, considering she does it while delivering one of her monologues as the main character, Emma;  I do wonder if that is something the playwright did as well, although it might have been mentioned during the monologue. Even then, the point of using hoops was completely lost on me. Was it symbolic, perhaps, of her having to jump through symbolic hoops to get through her condition?

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The fact that the main character had three characters playing her psyche, was, I think, not exploited enough. The psyches could be a more powerful vehicle for the comedy. I believe their presence and lines should have been more closely integrated with the main character, instead of being relegated to passively watching her in the background most of the time. There was also quite a bit of monologue, which was really explaining details of procedures or the affliction, which tended to drag. It is a prolixity that could have been avoided by involving the psyche more. Don’t get me wrong, but unless a monologue is as powerful as Hamlet’s delivered as engagingly as Kenneth Branagh would, then don’t do the monologue. Those monologues could have been improved by breaking up the information into bits of dialogue involving the psyche so that they sounded less like lectures and more like a person struggling with coping with her fears and situation.

I have to say that one of the most brilliant choices was in the original music. To set everything to a jazzy beat provided by 2015-08-06 18.45.21   Justin Amador and Charlotte Large with those couple of folksy gospel song-like choruses by Tony Reddin at the beginning and end really set the tone for the comedy. If the pacing and acting had followed that jazz beat throughout, it would have been a great performance. In fact, I would have liked more music interspersed with the dialogue and a more active part of the performance, particularly since some bars were finished before they could even be appreciated. I’m just imagining involving the musicians in the dialogue by making them parts or voices of the psyche.

I would certainly like to see this play developed more and performed to wider audiences, because of its educational value. Here’s hoping that someone will pick up the sponsorship to bring this play all over PEI and elsewhere.

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*A version of this review is available on onrpei.ca

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Anne & Gilbert: Island Through and Through

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“You’re never safe from surprises till you’re dead” is what Rachel Lynde always reminds Marilla. It’s perfect advice for the first-timer to a performance of Anne & Gilbert The Musical, running at The Guild until October.

As I do every time, I entered The Guild with no expectations and a lot of questions in my head, all wondering how this play would connect with my experiences watching Anne of Green Gables The Musical. I have been to The Guild several times and from the moment I learned that Anne & Gilbert would be staged there, I was thinking that the small stage and narrow hall would constrict the performers and box in the performance too much. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the black box had been completely transformed. The whole orientation was shifted 90 degrees so that the performance space included the whole length of the theatre, as did the audience space, which was transformed by several risers providing every row of the audience with perfect sight lines. Already, I was pleased.

Soon enough, the play began with the lively opening number of Avonlea schoolgirls in a passionate rendition of “Mr. Blythe” led by Brieonna Locche as Josie Pye. This song establishes the fact that Gilbert Blythe is the most sought after bachelor in town and Josie is out to make sure he becomes hers despite his known love for Anne. Margot Sampson’s portrayal of Rachel Lynde is livelier, wackier, and more endearing than the same character in Anne of Green Gables The Musical, albeit somewhat sedate in her first number “Gilbert Loves Anne of Green Gables.” Carroll Godsman’s Marilla Cuthbert still bustles around but her role as Anne’s adoptive mother has become stronger and more assertive. Ironically, it is through a letter to Anne at College that she reveals a depth of love for a former beau, which begins Anne’s journey to accepting her feelings of love. PEI’s most beloved character Anne Shirley, portrayed beautifully by Ellen Denny, is only slightly more restrained as a young adult, but still passionate and dramatic. Ellen Denny’s sweet, clear soprano voice reveals itself little by little and is at its best in her solos, my favourite being “Someone Handed Me the Moon.” Her best friend, Diana Barry, is played wonderfully by Brittany Banks, and shares Anne’s trepidation for married life. Unlike Anne, however, Diana is more excited, as she already has a beau and eagerly plunges ahead into marriage, while Anne continues holding Gilbert at bay, denying that she has any feelings for him. Patrick Cook is the perfect Gilbert, somewhat cocky, but utterly devoted to Anne, and certainly the best-looking guy in town. With his voice and looks, he most certainly will find not only all of Avonlea’s schoolgirls, but all of Charlottetown’s, hankering after him.

In the same way she instantly befriends kindred spirits, Anne befriends the wealthy Philippa Gordon, played by Morgan Wagner, whose bubbly but ever-pragmatic personality dominates the stage so that the fiery red-head seems quite sedate by comparison.

The projected backdrops were amazing, the proximity to the audience making one feel part of the scene, especially at the end of Act I. The sets were completely manageable and the execution of scene changes was disciplined and efficient. The costumes were reminiscent of the times. The music original, varied, and covering every range of emotions felt by the characters. The lighting was spot-on although I wonder if the space restricted back lighting and side lighting so that larger-than-life shadows were thrown about on the floor and backdrop, sometimes in more than one direction. Because the stage was much wider than it was deep, certain scenes had characters at opposite ends beyond peripheral vision, which limited the view for the rows nearest the stage. Having to turn your head to one side then glance quickly to the other just to see if something significant was happening there was a bit of a stretch. The best thing, however, was the absence of mikes. Hearing natural stage voices is something I really miss, because so many productions take advantage of wireless mikes, which can be a problem with a big cast and a lot of movement. Overall, though, the technical aspects of the production enhanced every minute of the performance and helped to draw the audience deeper into the atmosphere of Anne & Gilbert’s Avonlea.

Indeed, the surprises were plentiful in this play and, I am happy to say, they were wonderful surprises! The thrill of courtship, the warmth of a close-knit community, and the cheer brought on by song and dance were conveyed over and over again throughout the play. Brittany Banks’s lively and masterful choreography enhanced every mood and the Young Company players and cast executed it precisely and enthusiastically.

Patrick O’Bryan, a gentleman from Chicago sitting a seat away from me at the performance aptly summarizes what everyone in the audience must have been thinking by the end of the first act: “I am very impressed with the professionalism. The dancing, the singing, the music—all excellent!” To add to that, I say Broadway move aside, Charlottetown is here!

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The Attic, The Pearls & 3 Fine Girls Make One Very Fine Evening!

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(This article is also available on onrpei.ca)

I love comedy. There. I’ve said it. There are many other things I’ll say I love, but the evening of November 3 has gotten me out and admitting that I love comedy, and I just loved this performance, so wonderfully directed by Laurel Smyth! CONGRATULATIONS, Laurel!

Of course, without the cast, the play would have been nothing at all, and it was mainly the cast that made the play so amusingly and amazingly human.

The playwrights, whom, I have learned, started writing the play as improvisational theatre and worked on it over several years, have captured the essence of family and sisterhood in their delightfully delectable and infinitely humorous script. Tell me if there are too many superlatives…but I can’t really think of enough.

Three sisters, Jojo (the eldest, played by Melissa Mullen), Jane (the in-betweener, played by Kathleen Hamilton) and Jelly (the baby, played by Gill Mahen) have to deal with their father’s death and the party he requested as his dying wish. But it is not just the party and his death they have to deal with, apparently. Like any normal family, they have had issues about each other and with each other, as well as with their lives outside their sisterhood.

Jojo has been in a couple of failed relationships after giving up her one true love, Umesh, to be with Jane at her “death bed” which, as it turns out, was not final. Jane, who is plagued with episodes of some unnamed condition (asthma? a weak heart?) has also been in several relationships, and is as yet unable to come out in the open about her sexuality. Jelly is a struggling artist who has decided to return home and take care of their ailing father in his last year of life.

Jojo is angry at Jane for many things, but mainly the loss of her one true love and for having slept with her ex-husband, then inviting him to the party. Jane is obsessed with her work, her girlfriend, and her former lover, Mrs. Gray, who is also at the party. Jelly is the only without any real hidden anger, and interprets her life in her art, particularly for an upcoming exhibit in Munich.

Their father’s death has thrown the three together in the house they grew up in, full of memories of good times and bad times, and the script constantly throws us back and forth between past and present. Most of the memories are literally and figuratively stored in the attic, which is where the girls are reminded of most of them.

How they confront each other and their pasts is alternatingly poignant and hilarious, as Jane and Jojo lapse into rambunctious remembering in between blaming and bickering. Jelly finds herself more and more in the role of mother and peacekeeper, emphasized by the way she is supposed to look so like their mother and how she does things the way their mother did. Still, she is the “baby” who is constantly ignored and not heard, until she finally finds a way to get their attention and make them listen to her. In the end, they find the best solution, which really was Jelly’s suggestion in the first place.

The actresses were superb in their roles, which all seemed so natural. It’s no wonder after all, since Laurel told me that they had about two years to go over the script and work on the characters before they finally decided on a definite run.

The sets, executed by Anne Putnam, had all the charm of a rustic aging attic—indeed, the whole house seemed like an attic, fraught with memories—and served the performers well. David Bennet’s lighting, including a few special effects, worked excellently with scene changes, except for one tiny forgivable execution in timing, which revealed an exit that should have been hidden. The costuming was both whimsical and characteristic of the teacher, the businesswoman, and the artist in each of the three characters. And the music! The sound effects and the music that triggered many of the memories were the icing on the cake.

If I could, I would watch this show every night of its run! One performance is not enough to savour every little aspect of the play, or even to just enjoy the quick and witty dialogue and the little surprises every scene change brought. Definitely a play to catch before the month is over!

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365 Things to Look Forward to: Number 5 – Watching a Play

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5. Watching a Play.

I am substituting for a Grade 5 teacher today, the 9th of June 2011, and the Vice Principal gave me a really pleasant surprise as she walked me to my classroom. The 5th and 6th graders had put up a production of Hairspray and were doing a dress rehearsal/special performance for the first half of the morning, with 2nd graders as an audience.

I have always loved theatre–thanks to the exposure I got from my mother–but also because it must be in my genes. My maternal grandfather was a thespian, as is one of my paternal aunts. I also have a special place for musicals in my heart and imagine I could have done that, if my mother, in her contrary way, would have let me become a thespian. She actually considered the profession immoral in a very old-fashioned way.

Theatre, to me as a child, was a magical world that took me away from what would otherwise have been the very drab, introverted world of a nerdy bespectacled bookworm. It not only transported me into the world of my books, it came alive for me so that I didn’t need to stage elaborate and full productions of books in my head.

Whenever possible, my mother would obtain tickets to a play so we could watch it–and while not very frequent, it happened enough times that I remember. The most affordable plays were done by a local repertory company with plays staged in Filipino. I know I learned how to speak and understand Filipino better because of those plays. Plays done by the leading English repertory theatre company were a little too costly, so we got to watch these only once in a rare while. So it was a glorious treat when I became related to that company by virtue of marriage. I was able to watch every play I wanted to as often as I wanted to, and so rarely ever missed one. Then, I worked with this company, as well as another theatre company based in the Cultural Centre of the Philippines, so I had the time of my life!

With every play I watched, I drank in every scene, every song, every detail. I couldn’t get enough of just  watching plays as a child, so I started looking for plays to read. By the time I was done reading every single children’s book in the collections we grew up with, I needed more to satisfy my craving and discovered my dad’s Classics Club collection–and encountered my first complete collection of the works of William Shakespeare!

I never just read plays. In my mind, I became a director, designer, and actress. I could see the play running through my mind, complete with sets, lights, costumes and sound effects, with characters speaking as if they were standing right before me. My secret desire was to be a famous thespian–it didn’t matter if I wasn’t the star, as I was painfully self-conscious as a child. I could be the director, the designer, even the playwright. Anything, as long as I was part of the play. And if I couldn’t be part of it, well then, the next best thing was to watch it!

And so, as I watch a grade school production of Hairspray I am drawn back to the world of my dreams. I only wish live theatre as entertainment were much more affordable. But you can bet that when I get that full-time job that provides me with enough income for all the basics and more to spare, and enough downtime so my evenings and weekends don’t have to be spent working, I will be at the theatre, sitting somewhere in the middle or near the back where I can get a good look at the whole stage and be transported into an alternate reality!