photo by karen braaten
Toronto’s Alumnae Theatre was founded in 1919 by women graduates of the University of Toronto, at a time when Torontonians had little opportunity to see theatre of any kind. The Little Theatre Movement, as the development of these Amateur or Community Theatres was called, was inspired by the advent of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the resurgence of Irish Nationalism that accompanied the work of Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats and John Middlington Synge as well as the decline of “The Road,” the touring shows that came to Canada along a number of different American circuits after the rise in popularity of film, along with advent of the First World War. Today, Alumnae Theatre is still dedicated to presenting the best in classic and contemporary plays and to provide opportunities for all women in theatre. Its 92nd Season kicks off with a production of Daniel MacIvor’s play You Are Here which plays until October 9th, 2010.
I had a very unique experience watching this production because I could perceive a widespread blanket of trepidation and hesitance, stemming not only from all the actors, but also from the director’s choices as well, that seeped into every aspect of MacIvor’s play. Daniel MacIvor is a bold playwright who often tackles dark themes and characters struggling to resist or conquer their demons and certainly You Are Here, my personal favourite from the MacIvor canon, is no exception. Alison, a journalist, and her best friend Richard, unravel before our eyes into coked-out drunken messes of despair, anxiety and emotional crises. The play is gritty, but also has the potential to be exquisitely beautiful simultaneously and also, of course, entirely devastating.
Tabitha Keast plays Alison and she has created her to be a strong and endearing protagonist. There are particular moments in the play where the rhythm of her speech and her interactions with the other characters spring vibrantly to life. For example, the tone that she adopts when speaking to a University professor she detests and his girlfriend, her nemesis, Connie Hoy, is brilliantly deadpan and an instant switch from the more casual dialogue she has with Richard. There is a beautiful moment between Keast and Alyssa Quart, who plays the actress Diane Drake, where in an interview Alison manipulates Diane into recalling her first feature film as a child, Santa’s Postman. Quart shines brightly in her portrayal of Drake, exuding both a cool, confident aura of exclusivity and a far more vulnerable sense of being somewhat damaged.
Yet Keast seems to continually hit a wall which inhibits her from really leaping into the dark and frightening territory that Daniel MacIvor is leading her. This trepidation starts at the beginning when Alison, in classic MacIvor style, has a long, rambling, poetic monologue that is meant to be delivered directly to the audience. Keast gives life to MacIvor’s words, but insures that the third wall remains between her and her public, and thus there is no connection between Alison and those with whom she is sharing this intimate story. Keast, and all the performers in this play, also seem remarkably shy with one another. Sexual dynamics are essential to the construction of this play because, essentially, everyone wants to fuck nearly everyone else, and often with a fiery, lustful rawness. It’s not that these actors don’t have chemistry with one another, but even from the audience, a palpable respectful distance is maintained between them which makes the relationships fall a bit flat. This also makes certain aspects of the play a bit unclear since it is the sexual tension between Alison and Richard that makes the ensuing drama so tragic, and also the sexually charged atmosphere between Diane and Jerry is crucial to create a sense of anxiety as Alison watches the ending of her marriage march purposefully toward her. Will O’Hare gives a great performance as film director Thomas Roman, he captures the character’s passion for film and his torment between a desire to create art and his need to fulfill his financial obligations, but O’Hare could also benefit from pushing himself into seedier territory and for the spark that he feels toward Diane and Alison to smolder intensely so that the audience can see and feel his desire for them melding with his ardor for filmmaking, so that art and sex become synonymous with one another.
Paul Hardy directs You Are Here just as tentatively. He glosses over the aspects of the play that are the most disturbing and the most graphic. It is almost unclear when Richard, Alison and Justin are doing cocaine because the drugs are only ever passed quickly between two of them once, rather than simply being a natural presence in the environment. There is a blow job sequence that Hardy chose to cut altogether and the actors haven’t been pushed enough into the dark crevices of this world to find the depth of meaning that makes this play so poignant. In general, Hardy’s direction could be bolder, all the characters, especially Richard, tend to pace aimlessly and there are two visual sequences involving the spilling of substances from a glass and then a bottle, which have the potential to be powerfully stunning moments of theatre, but here they are rushed and lack the strong artistic vision needed to make them work.
In all, I think that the actors involved in this play are generally quite talented and that the production shows a strong potential toward creating well-polished and riveting theatre. I understand that Alumnae Theatre, with its rich history, does cater to a specific demographic and that, for this reason, the powers that be may be inclined to want to censor certain aspects of the plays they choose as to not offend these patrons. Yet, I think that too often theatre artists underestimate their audience’s sensibilities and that it is always a stronger choice to be brave and to delve wholeheartedly into the depths of the world the playwright has provided for us. It is only by unshackling the actors that the director can watch them fly.
You are Here plays at Alumnae Theatre (70 Berkeley Street) until October 9th, 2010. For more information or to book your tickets please call 416.364.4170 or go online to www.alumnaetheatre.com.