Going On, the Canadian premiere of a new play by Canadian actor Elizabeth Richardson is the last of the Supernova plays to open at Eastern Front Theatre’s annual festival and it has its final performance tomorrow at Neptune’s Studio Theatre.
I found this play to be a challenge. Elizabeth Richardson is a highly acclaimed and accomplished Canadian actor and her writing and the imagery in Going On is beautiful, but for some reason I found that, as a performance, the play just coasted along the surface rather than submerging me into the characters and the emotional arc of their stories.
Richardson offers up two disparate and continually alternating narratives, one takes place in 1978 at the beginning of her acting career when she is cast as the understudy for touring productions of Uncle Vanya and Present Laughter starring Peter O’Toole. The second takes place over twenty years later and focuses on the impact that her decision to go on a year-long Shambhala Buddhist retreat had on her relationship with her elderly mother. Both narratives offer opportunities for great fun and humour. I loved her audition rendition of Noel Coward’s “Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage, Mrs. Worthington.” Throughout the retreat there is a great tension between the expectation for serenity and Richardson’s fury at how boring silence and meditation can be and how much she is missing every single other thing in the world.
Perhaps what kept me so detached from Richardson’s performance was that I had so many questions about the way she had chosen to construct the show and the way that Linda Moore had decided to stage it. First of all, I wasn’t entirely certain why Richardson had chosen these two specific times in her life and what effect she was trying to procure by bringing the two of them together. What was the significance of Uncle Vanya and Present Laughter beyond just being the beginning of her career? How do these plays, and her experience in them, connect to the themes of Buddhism and a Buddhist retreat? I thought perhaps a stronger parallel may have been made between the idea that once an actor is in front of an audience, if the performance is to fly, she needs to be grounded in the moment, arguably inhabiting Eckhart Tolle’s NOW. Yet, this wasn’t deeply explored.
I wasn’t sure if when Richardson was performing the roles that she was understudying in 1978 she was performing them consciously as an inexperienced twenty one year old whose character choices were funny caricatures of Coward and Chekhov, but far from being performed the way one would expect from a professional in a tour headed to Broadway. If this was a deliberate choice, I wasn’t sure how that connected to the rest of the piece. To make matters even more confusing, as “Liz,” the character telling the story, Richardson doesn’t seem vocally grounded. Her voice is very affected and “actor-y,” which makes the parts of the play that are the most personal and with the most potential to be moving seem more like narration than something genuine and from the heart.
I wondered why so much of the portrayals of the other characters in the piece were done almost entirely with the voice and just one stylized physical trait rather than inhabiting the whole body. This seemed like a deliberate choice, but I was unsure about the intended effect. For me, it made the characters seem stuck, unable to come alive, and some of the voices of the minor characters were so generic that they didn’t create any impression of individuality at all.
Ultimately, I felt uncomfortable between the disparity of the experience that I was having and the intentions that Richardson seemed to have for the show. Initially, I was able to appreciate Going On as a humorous show with some great industry jokes and some impressions of clichés that are easily recognizable within the theatre community and likely with those who have a better knowledge of Buddhist teachings and practices as well. Yet, once Richardson began trying to take me to a much sadder and deeper place, I felt like the material did not allow me to connect to these people as three dimensional individuals. I was suddenly made very aware of the hollowness between the text and the performance and the show began to lag.
I am very interested to follow this play’s future journey. I know, undoubtedly, that there is a play in this material; I am just not sure if Elizabeth Richardson has found it quite yet.
Going On plays one more time at Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street, next door to the Argyle Grill) on Sunday May 20th at 7:00pm. For more information or to book your tickets please call 902.429,7070 or click this link.