What Is Not Art?

peter donaldson as marc, evan buliung as yvan
and colin mochrie as serge
photo by: cylla von tiedemann
Sometimes I find myself in an odd position when a theatre company such as Canadian Stage produces a play like Yasmina Reza’s Art, which plays at the Bluma Appel Theatre until April 10th, 2010. Art had its world premiere on October 28th, 1994 at the Comédie Des Champs-Elysées in Paris, France and opened on Broadway on January 3rd, 1998. It was awarded eight awards that year including a Tony Award, Evening Standard Award, Laurence Olivier Award and Moliere Award for Best Play. It has been translated into thirty-five different languages since its original French. When a play comes with such a highly acclaimed reputation; my expectations tend to soar to the rafters. I am not sure exactly what I am expecting from these internationally renowned pieces of theatre, but so often I find myself leaving the theatre slightly disenchanted because so rarely do these hyped plays offer me a gobsmacking theatrical experience; in fact, many of these plays seem quite ordinary and conventional compared with some of the Canadian plays I have seen. This is, of course, a bittersweet realization, for there is a definite sense of pride and esteem that warms the heart when one perceives the theatre of her own country to be superior to (or at least equal to) a play that reached critical acclaim in London and New York and that has been produced all over the world. At the same time, I wonder why this play has been so prized by audiences and why it will be produced for its ability to draw in mass audiences based on its international acclaim. I guess my real question is: why aren’t more Canadian plays achieving this sort of flourishing success? This bittersweet disenchantment was my experience with Art.
Art is a very good play centered on the relationship between three men and how their friendships become strained and forever changed when Serge purchases an expensive piece of modern art, which looks strikingly like a blank canvass. Yasmina Reza writes in a sharp and witty vernacular and her play considers the question of the essence and parameters of art and explores how each of these three characters define themselves based on their opinions concerning aesthetics and how strongly these beliefs are connected to the values by which they live their lives. I am not sure that on its own Reza’s script gives adequate depth and individuality to her three characters, but in the hands of proficient actors any holes in the text are subsequently filled in. Perhaps this even gives more freedom to the actors to make their own choices and create their own subtext. Ultimately, however, I kept being reminded of Canadian playwright Michael Nathanson’s play Talk, which I saw recently at the Harold Green Jewish Theatre, which is a similarly staged story about two men whose friendship is shattered when they discover that they hold conflicting opinions about the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. Talk was a play that seemed to jump out into the laps of its audience, and attempted to shake them out of their apathy, while Art stayed so politely behind the proscenium allowing us to comfortably muse about philosophical questions and laugh at wry, witty jokes. Art was fun but it didn’t change my life.
That being said, the Canadian Stage production is given life by three extraordinary actors. Evan Buliung is magnificent as the young Yvan, a skittery, timid man who always attempts to mediate the quarrels between the people he cares about and who finds himself in the middle of Marc and Serge’s difference of opinion regarding the painting. Buliung shows expert comic timing and finds a nice balance between eliciting both pity and irritation from the audience. He also has one of the most brilliant monologues that I have ever seen performed, which requires him to speak at a harrowing pace in longwinded, frantic and rambling sentences which he performs with utter perfection. It is an absolute show-stopper! Colin Mochrie plays Serge, a role that suits his brisk, witty sense of comic timing perfectly. Mochrie only needs to look at the audience and they roar with elated laughter. He has the ability to bring a magnetic and genuine charm to a character that has the potential to be argumentative, pompous and dull, which insures that the audience is entirely captivated by him. Peter Donaldson gives a wonderful performance as the cantankerous Marc, whose bitterness and angry dismissal of everything in the world is given such buoyancy that the old coot becomes oddly endearing and essential to the play’s sense of humour. Morris Panych directs the play with a seamless finesse, sharply manoeuvring between the dialogue the characters speak to one another and the brief flashes into their minds which are shared with the audience. Panych nails some particularly hilarious physical theatre concerning the throwing of a book and an ice pack from one character to another, which showcases Colin Mochrie at his very best. He makes interesting use of media, using projected video footage to help the audience move from one friend’s apartment to the next. He also borrows the convention of Opening Titles, which many have expressed mixed feelings about. This is becoming increasingly frequent, as I saw it for the first time with Theatrefront’s The Mill Series, as the actors and director’s names are projected on the stage with the playwright and the title of the play, usually accompanied by music. Although it seems odd to borrow only a brief moment from the filmic genre, I do appreciate seeing the names of the artists involved with the production being displayed on the stage since many of the audience members do not peruse their theatre programmes and thus often remain oblivious to the people who have made their theatre excursion possible. I think if this practice was adopted by all the theatres in Toronto there would be a surge in the number of audience members who would know Canadian actors by name, simply because their brain would have been required to take in that information while watching the performance.
Canadian Stage’s Art is an accomplished production of a good play, but despite all Reza’s accolades and awards, I think that all that makes this rendition truly great is distinctly and satisfyingly Canadian.
Art plays at Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street East) until April 10, 2010. For tickets please call 416.368.3110 or visit www.canadianstage.com.

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