7 Stories Hasn’t Lost Its Edge

peter anderson as man, damien atkins as percy, melody a. johnson as jennifer, christopher hunt as al
What is funny about a man in a bowler hat standing on the ledge of the 7th storey of an apartment building and contemplating ending his life? Well, in a world created by Morris Panych, the answer is: everything. This is the premise of Panych’s play 7 Stories, which is receiving its 20th Anniversary Production at the Canadian Stage Company until December 5th, 2009.
The first thing that is striking upon entering the Bluma Appel Theatre is Ken MacDonald’s imposing set, inspired by the surrealist art of René Magritte. This illusion to Magritte and, more specifically his use of clouds, create both a sense of tranquility, which contrasts strikingly to the characters we encounter within the apartment, and also the sensation of infinite space which connects the apartment with the air, the sky and perhaps even to a world beyond that. The surrealism of Magritte coincides nicely with the absurdist quality of Panych’s play (directed by Dean Paul Gibson) which leaves the audience feeling that perhaps reality is not starring back at them as in a mirror, but that everything is slightly askew as in a dream.
Morris Panych’s play is brilliantly constructed; an adult’s equivalent to Alice’s Wonderland. A man stands on the ledge of an apartment building. Unsure if he is prepared to make the choice to end it all, he seeks a moment alone to clarify his thoughts. This is a privilege that Panych will not allow. Instead, he is continuously visited upon by the inhabitants of the building and it soon becomes clear that the man considering committing suicide is the most “rational” of the bunch. Panych spends most of 7 Stories deliciously and delightfully playing with his clever observations of the world and the people in it. All the conventions one would expect are turned on their head. The Man’s equivalent to Alice’s “Mad-Hatter,” for example, is actually a psychiatrist who, quite literally, admits: “I hate insane people, they drive me crazy.” Rodney and Charlotte continually try to kill one another because they don’t want their love affair to lose its fire. The play is a gold mine for interpretations while still remaining incredibly entertaining and a widely accessible piece of theatre.
7 Stories is a gift for actors with brilliant comic sensibilities and it is fortunate that the Canadian Stage Company’s production boasts of five of them. Christopher Hunt gives an incredibly hysterical performance as Leonard, the psychotic psychiatrist, who elicits laughter simply by popping into the window frame and casting a single glance at the audience. He is equally fantastic as Michael, the insufferable artist who feels absolutely everything. Rebecca Northan is sultry to the max as Charlotte and then just as frigid as Nurse Wilson, who bitterly rejects the world as she waits for her patients to die. Damien Atkins gives an incredible performance as the actor-cum-con artist Mike/Marshall in which he is able to channel all the grandiloquence of a lofty character from some 1940s film and all the genuine glum, wasted energy of an unfulfilled actor. Marshall has a moment, whilst smoking two cigarettes, which is beautifully reminiscent of Tim Curry circa 1975; Atkins has deftly captured the allure (and the hollowness) of the sort of British charm that Curry performs so well. Atkins also shines as Percy, the ultimate socialite, whose obsessive counting of his friends is even funnier in 2009, since websites such as Facebook have come to dominate our social interactions. Melody A. Johnson, a true genius of comedy, gives several brilliantly quirky performances and then goes on to create Lillian, a one-hundred-year-old woman, who proves the perfect cocktail of ridiculous, maudlin, charming and wise. As Lillian, Johnson has the audience clinging to her every word, and makes brilliant use of the comedic power of surprise. Peter Anderson reprises the role of ‘The Man’ twenty years after he donned the bowler hat for the premiere production at the Arts Club Theatre (Vancouver) in May 1989. He gives a beautifully simple and subtle performance. The Man is obviously an emotional role as he is grappling with some of life’s most complex questions; however, within the context of this play, it is most compelling to watch Anderson’s Man react and mostly keep his feelings at a distance. I felt like I never got to know “The Man,” but felt concern and affection for him regardless. In the same way, I think, as the phrase “le pamplemousse est sur la table” may save a man from dying.
As a playwright, I would guess that the ending of such a play must have caused Morris Panych some deliberation. He has set up two options for his protagonist: to jump or not to jump. To be or not to be. Both options carry strong consequences for his play. Yet, on the 7th storey, for this man, Panych provides his audience with the unexpected option, and like in Magritte and Albert the Pigeon, our protagonist finds a way to rise above the absurdity of the world and if not to fly, at least to learn to float.

7 Stories plays at the Canadian Stage Company (Bluma) 27 Front Street E. Toronto, Ontario until December 5th. For tickets and more information please call 416.368.3110 or visit http://www.canstage.com/

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