There is a play somewhere in Michael Ripley’s To Distraction, which plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival, but some intense dramaturgical development is needed for it to transcend out of the melodramatic collision of stories, genres and ideas that is currently on stage in this show.
Michael Ripley has a wide array of ideas; so many that his 85 minute play is entirely saturated with them to the point of near absurdity. It is not only difficult to digest so much dysfunction being crammed into one single birthday party, but the audience becomes incredulous when it is asked to not only believe, but to have an emotional reaction, to the conceit of three separate critical car accidents plaguing one family over a six month period, with two occurring within moments of one another. Some of Ripley’s ideas are extremely interesting. He has created a situation surrounding a pregnant woman and her husband which has the potential to be not only compelling, but, if done effectively, absolutely devastating. I would suggest that Ripley choose two or three especially interesting plotlines and to focus on mining them for all their rich and unique possibilities, rather than trying to tackle every issue in a single story.
Ripley’s talent for writing dialogue shines through in specific moments throughout this piece. He is particularly skilled at bringing his male characters to life, as in the scene between two puppeteers (and closeted math geeks), Charlie and Henry. Ripley has far more difficulty in creating faithful female characters. I found this play awkward at times to watch because the tired clichés plaguing all the cardboard women are bordering on chauvinistic. More generally, none of the characters in this play are particularly likeable, with the exception perhaps of Aunt Bibby, who Cayle Chernin pumps with as much heart as she can despite some vapid lines and cluttered motivation. This means that it is difficult for the audience to feel empathy for anyone, despite the continual tragic circumstances that the playwright superimposes over each character. It also makes it difficult for the actors to play within any sense of subtlety or complexity. Susie Yankou struggles especially with Violet, the sixteen year old who narrates the events that all swirl around her birthday party, as she is written completely void of any depth or individuality.
For a play that takes place almost entirely with actors sitting stationary in a series of different cars, it is baffling to me that director Miriam Laurence didn’t at least enforce the simplest rules of realism, such as making sure that characters never stand up while in the car, and to make sure to mime the opening and closing of the car door. These oversights break the continuity of the play in the most distracting of ways.
To Distraction is a first incarnation of a story that has every potential to become a compelling and entertaining one, but for now, it bursts both with exciting bouts of inspiration and its own challenges and limitations.
To Distraction plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst Street) at the following times:
Mon, July 5 10:15 PM
Tue, July 6 6:30 PM
Wed, July 7 5:15 PM
Fri, July 9 Noon
Sun, July 11- 7:00 PM
all tickets $10 at the door or book in advance by calling the fringe hotline at 416.966.1062 or go online at http://www.fringetoronto.com/.