I had a hard time with Gillian Clark’s play Understudy, which plays at Plan B this week as part of the Atlantic Fringe Festival. I wanted to love it and I wanted so much to connect to Clark’s wide eyed, endearing protagonist, Dylan, but I couldn’t believe that he was nine years old and I had difficulties with Dylan’s conflict with his expressions of gender because he always seemed more like an eleven year old girl rather than a boy exploring different ways, both conventional and unconventional, to behave as a boy in the world.
The most challenging aspect of this play for me was the writing. Precocious children certainly exist, but regardless of how smart they are, they are still children. There is a balance between the big ideas and the child’s vocabulary or, conversely, the big vocabulary but the child’s ideas. It’s this dichotomy that speaks true to life, but also captures a poignancy of the child TRYING to be grownup, but just not being quite able to reach yet. Dylan has an adult’s vocabulary and an adult’s perceptions of the world with a child’s exuberance, which loses that poignancy. Also, since the play is so much about Dylan trying to get his mother’s attention and trying to live up to her expectations, it would be more heartbreaking to see him trying, but failing, at being able to be her intellectual equal and to understand all the depths and nuances of her life in the theatre, as well as being much more realistic. In this incarnation I found myself wondering why any adult who met Dylan would allow him to stay in fourth grade, or would cast him as a sheep in a Nativity Play when it was so obvious that he was the most exceptional nine year old boy on the planet.
I love the concept of exploring how a child struggles to express himself in a gender-creative way, while still having to live within the context of elementary school in the real world. I love the idea of a child who has absorbed a love of theatre from his mother and how he uses that to try to get attention from her, to limited success. I love how engaging Clark is as Dylan and how she tugs at the audience’s heartstrings with her sheer earnest love and desire to be seen and heard and lauded. There is something beautifully human about this story, and I think that it will immediately soar once Dylan is more solidly rooted in the body of a child.
I would encourage Clark to spend some time with nine year old boys, as many different children as she can, and to really study the way they speak and their perceptions about the world. She may be surprised by what she finds.
Understudy Plays at Plan B (2180 Gottingen Street) at the following times
Saturday, September 7 at 9:10 PM
Tickets are $4.00 and are available in advance online at this website or 30 minutes before each show at the venue on the day of the performance. All tickets bought in person must be purchased with either cash or credit. For more information please visit this website or call 902.422.7604 between 10:00am and 5:00pm.