Canadian Theatre to the 3rd Degree

the cast of the 3rd degree in rehearsal
According to his Program Bio Anthony Rein, the writer and director of Chicken Coop Theatre’s production of The 3rd Degree, playing until September 25th at the Al Green Theatre, once directed David French’s play Jitters. I tell you this because The 3rd Degree borrows a great many of Jitters’ conventions and ideas and seeks to turn them into a musical.

In Jitters, David French opens from within the new Canadian play that a cast of actors are rehearsing in a theatre reminiscent of Theatre Passe Muraille in the 1970s. That play, The Care and Treatment of Roses, is inferior by far to the overall production, but French wisely keeps these scenes short and deftly brings the relationships between his characters to the forefront of the action so that it is this dynamic that holds the audience captive. In The 3rd Degree, Rein allows the audience to see nearly the entirety of a British Murder Mystery reminiscent of a Sherlock Holmes spoof at a Dinner Theatre. The initial difficulty is that this play sits in the lacklustre waters between offering a clever, crisp, farcical romp that does justice to this particular genre and the ability to pastiche it. Instead, Rein offers us horrifically stale dialogue, vague prototypes of characters and cheesy musical moments, but the writing lacks the necessary irony to give it that comedic edge and the actors don’t milk the dialogue, aimless blocking or Murder Mystery conventions enough to make it clear whether the play is an intentional disaster or just badly written.

Things become even more complicated as the show progresses and it is revealed that we are actually watching a rehearsal for a play, and we learn that, at least as far as the writer and the director seem to be concerned, the play is not meant as satire. As a matter of fact, the cast of actors and production crew are nearly as indistinctly written tired clichés as the Murder Mystery ensemble. French’s triumph in Jitters is that he was able to capture the spirit of his moment in Canadian theatre history, while still creating strong, unique individuals and rich dynamics for his actors to play with. There is little this cast can do with a nondescript bitchy diva, a director who yells a lot (and is married to… the bitchy diva), a skanky actress who wants a bigger part, a leading man who is also a player with Latino flair, a gay male dancer, an alcoholic writer and a method actor who stays in character throughout everything. The interactions between everyone are trite and superficial and the moments they’re given, all in song, to stand in the spotlight and tell the audience a bit about themselves, are meagre, presentational and do little to create empathy, intensity, to drive the plot forward or to change the dynamics between the characters in any way. When two actors come out of the audience to join the proceedings, in the middle of a rehearsal where there would be no audience, a week before Opening Night, where the director considers everything that looks fine to be horrific and everything that seems awful to be great, things stop making logical sense.

The music, by Rein, Alan J. Nash, Chelsea J. Cameron, Terence Vince and David Seidel, is at times beautiful. There are a few songs that particularly stood out as having fantastic potential, especially “I’ll Do Anything You Want,” about the eagerness of thespians to go above and beyond their call of duty in the name of the theatre and “The Theatre Brat,” which showcases the talents of Marianna Viele and her incredible dancing ability nicely. Sarite Harris has a powerful ballad at the close of Act I with “I Don’t Want the Spotlight,” which gives Harris a nice belting Broadway diva moment, which she flourishes in. There is another ballad that reminded me of that line in The Drowsy Chaperone where Man in Chair says, “The tune is beautiful… just ignore the lyrics.” The music is lovely, and the rhymes are generally tight, but most of the songs are extremely repetitive and neither advance the plot, nor explore a character’s psychological state. They need to be more tightly woven into the action that surrounds them.

It’s clear that the actors are truly committed to finding as much humanity as possible in their characters, Ryan Anning finds the humour in his dancer, Mark, although I think he can be even punchier, Kayla Whelan has lovely zest as the Maid, if only she were given better material and Ryan Galloway does manage to find pastiche with both his Sherlock Holmes knockoff Detective and his Stanislavskian actor.

Beyond being a musical that I think has some great ideas but that could benefit from further workshops, ideally ones where actors are encouraged to improvise and develop their own dialogue, is actually a degree of concern I feel about the way this show portrays the Canadian theatre community. There is a lot of misinformation that circulates among those unfamiliar with the logistics of the theatre and I think that as artists it is our choice whether we perpetuate a myth, which can have damaging consequences, or to seek to paint a more accurate portrait of the work that we do and the human beings that we are. There is much in The 3rd Degree that celebrates the theatre, don’t get me wrong, but there is a song about losing grant money which came across as whiney without any of the vision and passion for change that theatre artists engage in tirelessly. There is also a song where a publicist sings about missing New York, where things are described as being ideal, but she figures that she will “settle” for Toronto even so. The trouble with having characters that are so broad and seemingly representative of the “Everyman” array of the pantheon of the theatre, is that opinions like this one don’t seem to be rooted in this one character’s psyche, but instead Rein seems to be suggesting that this is indicative of how we all feel. He seems to imply that we consider Canadians to be second rate artists who couldn’t make it in the States and who are therefore stuck in a losing battle of poverty and terrible scripts being pushed further into the margins of society by our disinterested Government. What concerns me is that this portrait of the Canadian theatre is precisely the image that many Canadians who don’t know about theatre in this country have in their minds. Why are we choosing to represent ourselves this way? Or, why aren’t we exploring these clichés in the depth that they deserve in attempt to mine the truth in all its complexities? Much of this musical seems to be a cop-out and its protrayl of theatre in this country is by far the saddest one.

At the very essence of this musical, I feel like Anthony Rein could benefit immensely from taking his own advice, “You’ve got to bring your characters to life… [and] make your audience care-” it’s sage advice.

The 3rd Degree, a Chicken Coop Theatre Production, runs until September 25th, 2010 at the Al Green Theatre (in the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, 750 Spadina Avenue at Bloor Street). For tickets or for more information please visit this website

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